The Unmistakable Impact of Permaculture in Schools
By Jennifer Molino
This article was originally published in the first issue of Permaculture Magazine, North America. To subscribe,click here!
“This plant is Mullein, also known as cowboy toilet paper, because cowboys used it to, well, you know….” says 4th grader Bella, as she proudly shares with a group of district employees visiting El Monte’s school gardens in a lower income area of Concord, California. “You can also dry it, chop it up, and make it into a tea. It helps if you have a cold”, adds Faith, also in 4th grade.
Faith and Bella, two members of the El Monte’s Green Team, continue to lead their guests through the school, stopping to share favorite plants or stories along the way. The guests murmur in surprise and delight as their young docents lead them to the milkweed and tell them about the monarch butterfly caterpillars that made their homes in the leaves earlier in the year. More teachers and district personnel than ever before are visiting El Monte, with the desire to replicate its garden program at other schools. When visitors arrive, they often exclaim over the large “bus circle” garden as well as the resident chickens, greenhouse, and composting program that the school boasts.
El Monte, a lower income Title 1 school, was once a blank slate just begging to be transformed. Principal Christina Boman held the vision for the green transformation. She began by sharing with teachers and support staff the many benefits a school garden could provide, showcasing the learning that could happen on a different stage, outside of the classroom. Once teachers started to understand the vision, their excitement grew, as well.
The community presented another set of stakeholders that began to see the value of a school permaculture garden. The school’s PTA supported this initiative by giving money for supplies and materials to build the garden. Mrs. Boman also leveraged community volunteer groups to start the extensive facelift of the front circular lawn area that would become the first garden. These groups, such as T-Mobile and Kaiser, provided the muscle and human will to do the “dirty work” like the heavy lifting, cutting and removing the sod, building and filling the garden boxes, mulching, and constructing the drip water system.
El Monte originally partnered with the CARES Program, a federally funded after-school program that provides homework help, nutrition lessons, gardening, and structured recreation to over half the school’s students. The CARES Program funded a school gardener to perform maintenance and to teach students how to plant, propagate, and compost. Additionally, CARES used the bounty from the food program to highlight the “Harvest of the Month” as part of the nutritional aspect of the program. Students in the program stay until 5:45 p.m. daily and receive a healthy snack and dinner.
As the new Co-Administrator at El Monte, I came on board three years ago, just as budget cuts hit the CARES Program and the school lost its gardener. As an avid gardener, and a permaculture enthusiast, I was able to pick up where CARES left off and share my enthusiasm for learning about the environment and sustainability with the students.
Last year we partnered with the local waste management company, Garaventa, to start a composting program school wide. Garaventa provides the totes and then picks them up twice weekly to compost the waste materials off site. The Green Team teaches students about composting and helps them sort their food waste at lunch time. Whenever the school needs compost, Garaventa provides material that was once El Monte food waste, and would have otherwise ended up in a landfill.
The Green Team is a group of students in grades 3 to 5 who not only help with the composting program, but also meet with me after school on a weekly basis to learn about permaculture. This year, we were excited to start working with Matt Power’s The Permaculture Student curriculum. We often watch his videos, learn lessons about seed saving, plant propagation, soil health, composting or another of the myriad of topics permaculture has to offer. We then apply our new found knowledge in the garden.
This year each student has their own seed bank, a uniquely decorated shoe box in which students keep seeds they have harvested from the plants they grew. Students often bring seeds from home to trade with each other. Luis, a 3rd grader, shared, “trading seeds is more fun than trading Pokemon cards because they grow.”
The Green Team also brainstorms ways they can help the 5th graders raise money for Outdoor School, a weeklong camp they attend annually, if they can raise the money. This is often the first time students are away from home overnight. In May the 5th graders spend a week learning from naturalists who take them on day-long hikes through the redwoods, nearby wetlands, and along the beach. They also go on night hikes and participate in a town hall experience. It is a week that will be remembered for a lifetime. This year the Green Team grew seedlings and held a successful fall plant sale to benefit 5th grade Outdoor School. They plan on repeating their sale again in the spring. The students on the Green Team take pride in their stewardship and are excited when one of the plants they grew sells to benefit the 5th camp. 3rd grader Caitlyn shares, “In a couple years I will be a 5th grader, too. I hope the Green Team will do this for me, so I can go to camp.”
El Monte’s Green Team learns about the connections that invertebrates, mycelium, and decomposers have with plants and how these natural factors can improve soil health without adding harmful chemicals. They learn about water catchment and storage and how we really do not have a problem with how much it rains (or doesn’t in California), but rather how we store the water when it does rain.
Students learn properties of plants and the health benefits of many herbs. Lauren, a 5th grader, shared that her parents expect her to teach them how to grow their own food at home and have started a garden in their backyard.
Above all, students learn to observe. We spend a lot of time just holding worms, tasting borage flowers, feeling the soil between our fingers, and connecting to our food on a very visceral level. Many kids had no idea that salad did not magically appear in a bag in the produce aisle of their grocery store. It is truly life-changing and powerful when students eat what they planted, weeded, watered, and loved. El Monte’s permaculture garden program is helping change the students’ lives.
Jennifer Molino is Principal at El Monte School in California, where she runs the school’s Response to Intervention program as well as the composting program and Green Team.