The Power of a Place

by Bill Duesing

First broadcast on WSHU/WSUF-FM, November 10, 1995

It was just a bit of asphalt, undistinguished from the acres of contiguous asphalt that made up that Bridgeport school yard and the streets around it. Then a 25 by 40 foot section of blacktop was removed.

That was just four and a half years ago, the beginning of the Hallen school community garden. Now it is a place of magic and wonder, a 1,000 square foot oasis of ecological diversity. The honey locust tree the first class planted is big enough for the fifth graders to climb, and to provide welcome shade. Last week the students discovered a salamander under one of the rocks they've used to outline the growing beds. Frilly red and bright green lettuce, as well as pac choi and mustard are growing beautifully this fall despite the nip of frost.

The physical change was abrupt but simple. The asphalt was torn up and taken away. Then dirt and some pretty fresh manure were brought in as a gift, by the contractor, who was a gardener himself.

It is the kids, plants and compost that have worked this magic. The beginnings of a forest emerge. One volunteer oak tree is now about ten feet tall. A half dozen other young tree seedlings (including a beautiful apple and more oaks) have grown up on their own in the perennial border on the north and west sides of the garden. These trees remind us that underneath most of the asphalt and lawns in this region, a magnificent mixed hardwood forest is waiting to grow.

From the very first day in the garden, there was a sense that this was going to be great for Suzanne's fifth graders. We had one thousand square feet covered with smelly manure. None of the kids was going anywhere near that dooky, so Suzanne and I started turning it over. Before long, one by one, the kids wanted to help. Soon we didn't have enough shovels. Everyone wanted to participate.

The first spring, besides the honeylocust tree, the students planted a lilac, daylilies, raspberries and enough greens to have a salad party. They also planted sunflowers, tomatoes, broccoli, herbs, collards and more.

When the students came back to school the next fall, they found 10 foot tall sunflower plants with big heads full of delicious seeds and lots of red ripe tomatoes, where just one year before there had been asphalt.

Every year, Suzanne's class has been able to plant and harvest enough greens to have a salad party in the fall and in the spring. For the past three years, the other fifth grade teacher, Ginny, has also worked in the garden with her class, so there are 50 to 60 children regularly involved. This year the students seem better then they've ever been at the fine work of weeding and transplanting.

All this has come about with two hours work, one afternoon a week, weather permitting. Grubs and worms fascinate the children. A salamander or a snake are real treats, but even the peppermint, lemon balm and winter rye are exciting to many of the students. This 1,000 square foot area is an ecosystem now. It evolves as ecosystems do, toward greater fertility, diversity, complexity and stability. Its success has inspired school gardens in Wilton, New Haven and elsewhere. The garden reaches out to the neighborhood around it, too. Kids garden at home. They take cuttings, plants and seeds to grow in their yards. Hardly a week goes by without a former student stopping by on the way home from middle school to visit while we work. Many of them are proud of their gardens. The last several years, some fourth grade boys with a special passion for plants, have gotten permission to join us, too.

Educationally, using a garden as a context for learning is a wonderful strategy for accomplishing the objectives of the curriculum. It abounds in hands-on science lessons and math problems. Selected literature involves farming and native and early American topics, which connect well with the garden. Education is integrated and meaningful for the students. For many of them, the garden provides a connection to their grandparents who grow vegetables in Bridgeport, down south, or in the Caribbean.

So, if the state of things has got you down, try gardening with children. Their interest, curiosity and enthusiasm, and nature's response to their care build my hope every week.

There's lots more asphalt and lawn we could tear up and begin to turn things around.

This is Bill Duesing, Living on the Earth


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