Garden gloves pulled on and clippers in hand — the members of the Northwood Elementary School garden club were ready to work.
The fourth-graders spread out around the school’s courtyard garden on Tuesday, a hot late September afternoon. With the garden reaching the end of the growing season, dead flower buds needed to be trimmed off, mounding plants required cutting back and bushes had to get pruned.
The work was hard. But for the garden club, it was just another responsibility for the plot of nature they had tended since last year.
“I love animals, and seeing a bunch of trash around, I thought that would hurt the animals,” said Jon Kelley, fourth grade. “I’ve learned there’s a lot more to (gardening) than just protecting animals.”
In an effort to teach students about nature and the joys of gardening, Northwood has offered the garden club to students for the past four years. Students sign on as third-graders, cleaning out the courtyard in the early spring before the growing season. Along the way, they learn about proper garden care, as well as how plants, insects, birds and small animals all thrive together to create a balanced ecosystem.
Most importantly, the students have a chance to make an impact on their planet, in their own school community.
“Ever since I was a little girl, I’d help my grandma to plant stuff and trim, so I thought this was a great opportunity to get more knowledge about nature,” said fourth-grader Jasmine Smith.
The garden club is the idea of Ellen Paris, a longtime counselor at Northwood who retired in 2020, and local master gardener Linda Murray. They had met in a master gardener class, and together they decided to help Northwood reclaim an open-air courtyard at the center of the school.
The space had pathways through garden beds, a gazebo for outdoor learning, a small pond and other natural features. But it needed attention to bring back its natural beauty.
“We want this to be an area to be taken care of, that they can use to develop and have some long-term appreciation for nature,” Murray said.
With help from the school’s Parent Teacher Organization and a host of volunteers, they planted flowers and bushes, with many perennials to come back year after year. The group built raised bed gardens for vegetables. A butterfly garden, loaded with milkweed to support the insects, was installed, Murray said.
The garden club was then opened in 2018 to students in third and fourth grades.
“We wanted to make it so the students that helped plant the vegetables in the spring would be there to see it in the fall, when they started back to school,” Murray said.
After the pandemic disrupted the schedule, club organizers have regrouped and gotten the students back involved. They clean up the garden in the spring, and do planting in the raised beds.
“We were surprised at the interest. We also knew that many hands make the work easier in keeping the courtyard in good shape, trimming, weeding, etc.,” Paris said. “It is fun to watch the excitement of the students when they can see the work they do benefits so many, especially in growing season — they loved getting tomatoes.”
Since the start of the school year, they’ve met every Tuesday after school to work on the garden. They picked the tomatoes, collard greens, lettuce, radishes and other items planted in the spring.
The kids have learned about managing water, through the garden rain barrel. They’ve discovered creatures ranging from butterflies to birds to a pair of land turtles that have made the garden their home.
“We want the kids to understand the importance of having a habitat available for monarch butterflies and the bees and all of the other creatures,” Murray said. “We’ve had many students go home and plant their own container gardens over the years.”
All of the kids joined the club for different reasons. Fourth-grader Emily Porter already had an interest in gardens and wanted to do more to help the environment.
“My mother always has a garden, and I love to try to help in it. I always thought that people littering and stuff like that was so bad,” she said.
On Tuesday, that meant making sure all of the plant beds were trimmed, weeded and cleaned up before Northwood’s fall break in mid-October.
They knew they had to be careful.
“Some of the things could be little trees that are just now starting to sprout. If you pull everything, there will be no nature,” said fourth-grader Timothy Burton.
Throughout the afternoon, they fanned out around the garden and worked hard to pull up dead flowers and withered leaves. They found patches of weeds and dug them out.
Once everything was clipped, the detritus was loaded into wheelbarrows or trashcans to throw away.
The garden club’s activity will end in the coming weeks, until the next group of students comes through in the spring to start all over again. But for this year’s participants, their work will have made a difference.
“I wanted to join this club because I think it will help the world be much better,” said Mya Smith, fourth grader.