Sprouting change: Piner High School receives funding to revitalize its garden

For nearly a decade, Piner’s garden has existed on a shoestring budget, supported mostly by a string of dedicated teachers who’ve kept it alive. Now it has a new lifeline.|

Leafy greens are sprouting from the dirt in a corner of Piner High School’s outdoor garden. In the next few weeks, the kale, arugula and broccoli crops will be surrounded by plots of other vegetables, fruits and herbs, all to be planted and harvested by students.

With help from the School Garden Network — a national organization that helps fund garden revitalization and educational programs on K-12 campuses — what is now four muddy plots and few crops will soon be an outdoor haven full of opportunities for Piner students to gain hands-on agricultural experience.

It represents a new era for the garden, a cornerstone of the campus experience at the northwest Santa Rosa school. For nearly a decade, it’s existed on a shoestring budget, included in the curriculum in an assortment of classes and supported mostly by a string of dedicated teachers who’ve kept it alive.

Ninth grade Piner counselor Sydney Miller first started looking for ways to boost funding for the garden after hearing that English teachers were taking their students there to visualize a novel they had read about a school community who came together to create their own garden.

“This experiential learning piece is so powerful,” Miller said. “There’s also a community piece, in growing your own food and knowing its source.”

She quickly applied for the grant last spring, and by the end of the summer, School Garden Network had chosen Piner as the only high school in the county to receive funding, along with four elementary schools.

School Garden Network Farm-to-school Program Manager Courtney Delello said the large space already available at Piner was what made the school’s application stand out, along with its setup, which does not use raised beds but rather has vegetation growing directly out of nutrient-rich soil.

“Just in terms of being in that soil ecosystem, that complete soil ecosystem, the plants can get bigger, they get more robust, they're healthier,” Delello said. “For schools, it's hard to find a space with decent soil and good sun exposure.”

Under the grant, Delello spends 45 hours a month at Piner, teaching students and providing mentorship to school officials on how they can bring the garden to its full potential.

The school was also given $2,000 to buy tools, soil, seeds and other supplies needed for the year.

“Step one is to revitalize their gardens, to make them actually productive growing spaces,” she said. “And then to introduce the students to local agriculture, in eating locally, and providing money by buying produce from local farmers to bring into the schools.”

Nearly 250 students will now get their hands in the dirt each year. Prior to Garden Network’s involvement, the garden was only used by students in after-school clubs or by teachers who chose to bring their students to the garden.

Students start planting seeds for the fall harvest in the beginning of February, depending on the weather. Much of their fall semester is spent harvesting the fruits and vegetables and using the produce for either the school’s culinary program, or for the daily lunch meals.

“It was really fun last semester, to be able to work with the culinary department and just be like, ‘Hey, look at all this local produce that's grown right around here. What do you guys want to cook?’” Delello said.

In the winter months, between planting and harvesting, students spend time with one or two crops a month, to ensure learning continues all year long. In November, walnuts and pomegranates were the star of the show; in December, it was winter squash.

The grant provides a monthly stipend of up to $400 to buy local produce to supplement the cooking lessons.

“The goal for this coming spring — for the April and May months — is that they can actually harvest the Harvest of the Month crop from their own garden,” Dellelo said.

In October, students tilled the soil of an empty plot, which is now a growing bed of clover, making the soil more nitrogen-rich and creating better conditions for seeds once the soil is tilled again at the end of January.

The clover, along with fava beans sprouting in a different plot in the garden, are self-fertilizing crops that fix nitrogen in the soil and convert it into ammonia, a necessary component in photosynthesis.

Looking out at the garden on a rainy Tuesday morning with Delello, Piner Vice Principal John Kennedy said he was most excited about this fertilization process and how it shows the garden’s constant cycle of giving.

“The fact that we are putting things back into the soil when we don’t think there’s much happening; we’re giving back,” he said. “When we harvest next, the soil will give back to us.”

But there is much work to do before then, Delello said.

Weeds need to be pulled out from the back half of the garden; pathways between the plots will be cleared out with a weed whacker; a line of fruit trees will be planted in the garden’s outer edge; and a section for herbs that is readily accessible by the cafeteria, which is directly across the garden, will be built.

“The culinary department, they should always have access to oregano, rosemary, chives … all of those things, they should just be able to come out and get out of the herb garden,” Delello said.

By the start of next school year, the garden will look completely different.

“It’s going to be a crazy next few months,” Delello said. “We’re going to transform this place.”

Report For America corps member Adriana Gutierrez covers education and child welfare issues for The Press Democrat. Reach her at Adriana.Gutierrez@pressdemocrat.com.

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