As far back as I can remember, I can't think of a time when I have not spent spring, summer and fall working in a garden. When growing up, every spring, the large garden behind the garage at our home was hand spaded and raked over and over to get ready for planting. A tape measure, stakes and string made sure all the rows were straight and even. Each seed and plant was carefully set in the dirt, covered and patted in place. Watering, weeding and watching were done with devotion.
On more than one occasion my Dad had his picture in The Lansing State Journal for his tomato plants which stretched as high as the roof edge of our garage. To this day, I've never tasted tomatoes like his tomatoes. With all this being said, it was with a sense of anticipation I opened the cover of It's Our Garden: From Seeds to Harvest in a School Garden (Candlewick Press) by George Ancona.
The school bell sounds...
and the classrooms explode with the
noise of books closing, chairs sliding
on the floor, and kids chattering.
Recess! Unlike students in other schools, the students at Acequia Madre Elementary School in Santa Fe, New Mexico spend part of their time working in the school garden. From a dream held by one teacher to assistance from another and her husband along with college student volunteers, the land behind the school building was transformed. Every season engages students, teachers, parents, and other community members in activities revolving around the garden.
Spring is filled with promise. Seed catalogs are scanned for ideas, scraps from the cafeteria are taken to the compost pile which is then mixed into the dirt, seeds are planted inside the greenhouse first, and finally the planting outside is done in rows, beds and under tepees of bamboo poles. Everything is protected from the sun with a mulch.
Gathering water, harnessing the energy from the sun and protecting the plants is completed through inventive techniques. The small ecosystems living with the garden are explored and studied, bees, butterflies and bugs. Students are invited to paint, draw and write about the garden.
The work continues with mixing ingredients to make adobe bricks, spreading a new layer of adobe on the outside oven for baking bread (horno), and harvesting early herbs and vegetables. On weekends, the garden becomes a meeting place for the students, their families and community members; each contributing to the care of the garden. When school closes for the summer, the garden is still open for activities and upkeep.
In fall as school resumes, harvesting begins in earnest with students learning the different methods. To commemorate the end of the growing year, students are served lunches prepared with ingredients from their garden. With the approach of winter one final day is spent by all getting this small but vital corner of the world ready for the cold, quiet change.
George Ancona discusses in the introduction how he spent a year photographing the activities of the children in the garden. With simple, understandable text readers are given an insider's take on the happenings and studies throughout the months. When a possible unfamiliar word is introduced Ancona defines it in terms of its place in the school garden; the components of compost, rain water collecting in a cistern, plastic tubes around the tomato plants, nectar and pollen and bees, the making of adobe and a three-sisters garden.
It's easy for readers to visualize everything taking place in this garden at Acequia Madre Elementary School through the extensive photographs displayed on every page. George Ancona has taken great pains to give us a bird's eye view of the entire garden combined with numerous shots of the children, teachers, parents and volunteers working together. Sometimes he brings us even closer, capturing a hand holding a worm, snake, bugs or a handful of seeds.
The layout and design of the book alters the picture sizes assuring us of the lively efforts and education evolving each day. Drawings and paintings made by the children, grades kindergarten through six, are interspersed among the photographs. Even the opening and closing endpapers done in shades of spring green feature a tiny pattern of butterflies, bugs and bees created by the students.
George Ancona in It's Our Garden: From Seeds to Harvest in a School Garden shows readers of all ages the riches to be gleaned from not only the garden itself but from all the relationships formed between the people and with the natural inhabitants within the garden. It's a book highlighting the accomplishments of a community and this school but also an invitation for others to do the same. It's a book filled with possibilities. Wouldn't it be wonderful if every school had a garden?
Here is a video from Reading Rockets about George Ancona.