Turlock kids find food for thought, food for tables

Between two wings of Julien Elementary, usually left to a stretch of well-trampled lawn, stands the garden. No ordinary plot of weeds and neglected plans, this expansive plot of foot-high beds and bark offers kids an oasis of fresh air, soft soil, wriggly worms and infinite discovery.

“Everything we grow has something to do with everything we have to learn,” explained Inez Rios, a fifth-grader at the Turlock campus.

Exactly, second-grade teacher and garden coordinator Janet Wheeler said. “We have this school garden project to teach students about nature and about the Earth and life systems,” she said, standing by one of the 11 beds tended by 14 classrooms.

“Every classroom uses it for a different purpose. Students do all sorts of different science experiments. We do writing and art out here. We have an outdoor classroom at the far end of the garden,” she said, waving a hand at a group of picnic tables at one end.

“That’s used for any kind of lessons you would like. So, kids come out here even if they’re not working in the garden just to get outside,” she said.

Outside matters, kids said.

“It’s nice in here and it looks like little flowers,” said first-grader Aaliyah Traylor, pointing to masses of seedlings sprouting small leaves in every bed.

“We get to plant and at the end we get to eat it,” said fifth-grader Shaylan Roy-Williams. “I like the smell of the garden. It smells so clean and green.”

“It’s so beautiful. So green, and, I can’t explain – it’s just so good,” summed up fifth-grader Lilly Delgado.

The garden doubled in size almost two years ago, adding classes as well as beds that serve as science labs while seeds sprout, math labs as they grow and a vegetable buffet at harvest, said Principal Angela Freeman.

“There’s a lot of math,” fifth-grader Addison Edeal noted, explaining his class had to count corn kernels and estimate how many were on the cobs.

Shucking the corn was classmate Nefi Bertinetti’s favorite part. “Every time you pulled off another layer – the husk, the silk – there was another one,” he said.

Kind of a food for thought, food for the table sort of transition. Wheeler would add, food for the soul. For more than two decades she has written the grants and tended the garden, starting with a small plot that has been destroyed and rebuilt larger through two school refurbishments.

“It appeals to small children’s sense of wonder. You can’t get that in the virtual world – digging around in the worm bed?” she laughed, pointing to where two of her second-graders had been touching the wriggling pile only moments before.

Classes plant with an eye for the seasons, with carrots, radishes, peas and arugula among the crops coming up from seed now. Herbs and citrus trees are the evergreens. Donated plants from Fredriks Nursery in Ripon gave the fall crops a head start. Spring planting aims for autumn harvests like potatoes, which became mashed potatoes, and mammoth sunflowers that lost their heads in service to seed counting and wide-eyed science.

Tending over the summer gets divided between willing teachers and Julien PTA parents. Many alums of the garden and their parents come back for garden work days. Eagle Scouts build the beds and the trellis that frames the fenced garden’s entrance.

“It’s really a community effort,” Wheeler said.

Now that community effort has gotten statewide attention, earning a Golden Bell Award from the California School Boards Association.

“Our staff and students are very deserving of this recognition. Their efforts at building and sustaining Julien’s school garden have been both remarkable and beneficial to the school community,” said Superintendent Dana Trevethan. “Enrichment programs such as this support instruction and our standards and make learning real.”

The garden is one of 56 Golden Bells awarded for 2016. Selections passed an applications screening by a 16-member panel of educators and on-site visit by judges to earn the honor.

Julien’s three-page application, penned by past principal Jeff Persons on the last day of school this past spring, notes students from the adjacent Turlock High School campus also use the garden, photographing the students with their plants for a high school art project and sharing the photos for Julien students essays displayed at the spring open house.

Teachers meet in the garden for dinner before evening meetings and students get lunch with the teacher in the garden as an incentive building positive behavior, Persons wrote.

“I think kids have a greater understanding of nature, the natural world, how their food is grown, how jobs can be a part of that,” Wheeler said. Garden lessons last, she added, pointing to former students now in ag and plant science jobs.

“Kids love it,” she said. “It makes all the difference.”

Nan Austin: 209-578-2339, @NanAustin