Garden of learning

Chico Country Day School’s Gina Sims teaches students about gardening—and life

Gina Sims, garden educator at Chico Country Day School, in the school’s fruit and vegetable garden.

Gina Sims, garden educator at Chico Country Day School, in the school’s fruit and vegetable garden.

Photo By kyle delmar

Jewell hosts Northstate Public Radio’s weekly gardening program In a North State Garden.

On a chilly Friday morning in January, kindergarten students in one of garden educator Gina Sims’ classes sat on the rock walls surrounding the vegetable garden in the heart of the Chico Country Day School (CCDS) campus near downtown Chico.

“Winter is a quiet time,” Sims began. “But what do you see? What do you hear? What can you find to admire or eat in our garden today?”

The bundled-up children raised their hands and wiggled their feet.

“I see leaves fallen on the ground,” said one. “I see oranges on the tree that we could eat,” said another, adding, “That tree didn’t lose its leaves.” Another child offered: “I hear the birds.”

After these first observations of the garden, Sims had each child pick his or her job for the day, such as being on the “safety crew” or the “compost crew”—jobs that reinforce community and cooperation, as well as other important life skills such as respect and common sense.

“Is it safe for those rocks to be all over the pathway?” Sims asked her group.

“No!” they responded, and the safety crew’s job was to tidy the rocks back along the garden beds’ edges. The compost crew turned the two compost bins, the clean-up crew swept the paths and the greenhouse crew tidied the greenhouse for the seed-planting that will be happening there in the coming weeks.

Gardens are microcosms of life and can teach a multitude of lessons—both philosophical (“What is beauty?”) and very concrete and applied lessons (“If a child plants three kernels of corn, and all three germinate and grow into stalks that flower and are pollinated, and all three stalks produce three ears of delicious, sweet corn, how many ears of corn will that child have to eat?”).

More important, how many lessons in math, science, history, geography, nutrition, language arts and physical education might that child have learned and loved along the way?

Chico Country Day students work together to turn the school garden’s compost.

Photo By Jennifer jewell

Countless, if you ask Margaret Reece, executive director of CCDS, where for the better part of a decade gardens and gardening have been a part of every one of the charter school’s K-8 students’ holistic-learning curriculum. In addition to working to California academic standards, the CCDS curriculum also emphasizes life skills.

“Gardens and gardening fit perfectly into this holistic approach to learning,” Reece said. “They provide kids with the opportunity to appreciate nature and plants, to grow and understand more about their own food. The kids are inspired and empowered.”

School gardens are not new or revolutionary, yet in the past five to 10 years—in an effort to address increasingly complex social issues including malnutrition, poverty, low rates of environmental literacy and high rates of childhood obesity—many primary schools in the United States have tried their hand at instituting school gardens. CCDS is just one such school.

CCDS budgets for Sims to teach gardening to each CCDS classroom every Friday throughout the school year. Beyond the year-round fruit-and-vegetable garden, CCDS also has a rose garden, a native-plant pollinator garden, a small greenhouse and a composting system.

Sims, a mother of young children herself, is also on staff with the Center for Nutrition and Activity Promotion at Chico State. She is passionate about kids engaging in the physical world around them. Under Sims’ caring watch for the past three years, the CCDS gardens have grown from a plot of ground “overwhelmed with weeds,” as she described it, to the more than 15 creatively rock-outlined or wood-sided raised-bed vegetable-garden oases where Sims spends most of her teaching time.

“The garden infrastructure was here, established through the hard work of elementary teacher Susie Bower,” Sims explained during a recent interview and tour of the school’s gardens. When Bower went from part-time to full-time teaching, said Sims, the future of the CCDS garden program was unclear and the gardens were let go until Sims was hired.

“Hands down, the most important thing that I focused on in the beginning was cultivating a community of support,” Sims emphasized. “I took one look at the weeds and the disrepair and I knew I could not do this alone.”

Sims, building on a supportive school administration that found the resources to fund her seven-hour-a-week position, cultivated a network of up to 20 parents and community members who volunteer “weekly or monthly.” These volunteers serve on an advisory committee, paint signs for the garden and help out on some workdays.

Some, like 71-year-old Ernie Dalton (see “Local heroes 2010,” CN&R, Nov. 25, 2010) and interns from Chico State’s Nutrition Department, come in regularly as extra hands for what Sims calls her “garden Fridays.” Dalton has been working with students at CCDS and other local schools for many of his retirement years. He has helped schools get garden grants throughout the years from a variety of sources including the California Fertilizer Foundation, Lowe’s, the Rotary Club of Chico, the Butte Rose Society (which helped fund the CCDS rose garden), and the Chico Horticultural Society. Many other local nurseries and community groups have helped with in-kind donations of a wide variety.

Yet another of Sims’ resources is Adrienne Edwards, who has a doctorate in botany and is education chair for the Mount Lassen Chapter of the California Native Plant Society. A mother of young children attending CCDS, Edwards has developed the native-plant pollinator garden on the CCDS grounds, where students can roam and learn about California’s native plant life. Here, glossy green-leaved California lilac and deer grass thrive and attract beneficial pollinating insects.

Some of Sims’ future goals for the garden include the creation of a circular sitting area where students can read, gather and play, which she hopes would also make the garden even more accessible and welcoming to CCDS teachers integrating the garden into their lesson plans.

“My greatest challenge is time—never enough,” Sims said. “My greatest gift? The community of kids and adults who love and learn from the gardens.”