Franklin Elementary students show off their organic garden in Modesto

jfarrow@modbee.comAugust 24, 2013 

— As farmers markets go, it wasn't big.

But then, neither are the farmers.

Children in the After School Education and Safety, or ASES, program at Franklin Elementary showed off their organic fruit and vegetable garden at back-to-school night Thursday.

As parents, educators, district officials and other guests walked among the 13 raised planting beds at the school off Maze Boulevard, student ambassadors manned information tables. At one was a before-and- after poster showing the land when it was just a weed patch. On another lay pictures of students tilling and leveling the soil.

Students handed out aromatic and functional sachets they made from herbs they grew, including lemon verbena, thyme, basil, oregano and lavender.

A child made sure no one passed her table without trying water infused with produce grown at Franklin. There were three types: watermelon rosemary, cucumber mint and lemon verbena.

Students had a lot of help

Visitors oohed and aahed over the variety of peppers, tomatoes, eggplant, lettuces, carrots, melons and more. There wasn't a lot, said ASES site coordinator Chris Hiett, "because it's late in the season and the aphids took their toll, but the kids are excited."

Rightfully so. The children put about a year and a half of work into the garden, and had a lot of help along the way, from guidance by UC Cooperative Extension staff, to advice and donations from Modesto Composting, Home Depot and other businesses, to side-by-side gardening help from Mark Twain Junior High students. The garden has played into lessons on soil science, plant life cycles and nutrition.

It even incorporates service learning. As parents left the garden dedication for other back-to-school activities Thursday, the children dove into harvesting, washing and displaying their produce for a donation-only farmers market. "I'm not sure how much we raised, but what we did will go to the Helen White Memorial Trail," Hiett said. The half-mile Helen White Memorial Trail, named for the late west Modesto community leader, is planned to run on a former canal bank between Maze Boulevard and California Avenue.

"There's been a lot of learning, and it's been an incredible process to see the kids enjoying what they're learning," Hiett said. The students took field trips to nurseries and Modesto Composting. They picked out their own plants. They have a worm farm and will begin their own composting.

"Right now, it's the ASES children primarily working on it," Hiett said, "but I hope teachers will gain enough interest that they will adopt beds and their classes will make them their own," perhaps with themes, like Mark Twain students did with their pizza garden. "We put three tables out there for classrooms to participate."

Encouraging healthy eating

The garden has been funded through a Healthy Eating Active Living (HEAL) grant from Kaiser Permanente and a Stanislaus Partners in Education grant. For the time being, that and community involvement by the likes of UC Cooperative Extension, Modesto Composting and Home Depot will sustain the garden, Hiett said, but having classrooms adopt beds would help.

Plus, she'd like to see more students develop a hunger for healthy eating, and spread that to their families. Through the garden, she wants the school to "teach families how to be more self-sufficient, and create a passion for kids to go home and say, 'I can do this!' "

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