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Growing Goodness

There are a lot of things blossoming and growing on campus this year — any many of them are healthy and edible.

On any given day, you’ll find students from all three divisions — Lower, Middle and Upper — getting their hands dirty, literally, by planting, tending and harvesting the Charger Gardens.

Situated in the courtyard between Providence and Williams buildings, Charger Gardens is an environmental initiative focused on engaging students, faculty and staff in service through agriculture, innovative design thinking and community outreach.

Begun in the summer of 2016, the space — currently more than 300 square feet with plans to expand — is to be part vegetable garden with produce to donate in the Charlotte community, part pollinator garden and part outdoor learning lab whose collective goal is to utilize natural resources in a sustainable way to positively impact the school and community.

“Anyone can plant a garden and therefore have food to eat,” said Sarah Goodman, Middle School science teacher. “Our students in particular get to learn firsthand not only how to plant, keep and harvest a garden, but also the benefits of donating the proceeds (food) to a greater cause in our community.”

Modeling the connection between environmental stewardship and social responsibility reaches well beyond the classroom, said Olga Mawougbe, Lower School science teacher.

“Hands-on involvement in the garden will play a valuable role in helping students understand our necessary connection to and dependence upon the soil,” she said. “Growing to give (vegetables to those in need) also broadens students’ perceptions of themselves as cultivators of relationships.”

   The gardens has an advisory board comprised of students and faculty from all three divisions. Mawougbe serves as the Lower School faculty advisor, Goodman as Middle School faculty advisor and Jack Hudson, Upper School English teacher, as Upper School faculty advisor.

The students not only helped in the design and planning of the gardens, but they also assist with labor construction, planting, maintenance and harvesting.

“By far the most difficult, time-consuming task … was shoveling multiple pounds of dirt into garden beds we had made prior,” said senior Adanna Eziri, a gardens advisory board member.

Despite the hard work, the students seem eager to help out. Adanna believes student involvement is important because it makes the project and its success more personal “instead of remaining purely a niche club activity.”

“It’s no surprise that Lower School students are generally eager to get their hands in the soil,” said Mawougbe. “The idea of having a place on campus to actually grow vegetables has been exciting to many.”

Members of the Middle School Go Green club, advised by Goodman, have assisted in the gardens as has PDSustainability, a Students of Service club advised by Hudson, which is partnering with the Upper School advisory board to collect vegetable leftovers from the Dining Hall to create compost to be used in the beds.

Purposeful Planting

There are currently 10 beds that have thus far yielded a single harvest each of tomatoes and radishes, as well as two harvests of green beans and carrots.

“We tried to grow broccoli, cauliflower, and cabbage. While the seeds germinated and the plants came up, we planted too late in the growing season to get a harvest out of them,” admitted Hudson. “Same with corn — it was a little late and corn earworms devoured what the plants did produce.”

Given that the planting didn’t start until mid-June and it all had to begin from scratch, Hudson still considers it a productive first year. “We had some nice successes, and we’ve learned things that will ensure even more success going forward,” he said.

Also serving as the gardens project manager, Hudson is responsible for getting the harvested vegetables to Friendship Trays, a Meals on Wheels service that delivers balanced meals to local individuals who are unable to obtain or prepare their own.

The partnership allows students to see how their efforts are helping others out in the community.

“We are a school centered around giving back, but when you are seeing the food you harvest go directly out into the community as a meal, it makes the hard work worth it,” said Goodman.

While the fresh, nutritious produce clearly benefits Friendship Trays’ recipients, they’re not the only ones who gain something.

“This type of initiative allows students to get out into nature while giving them a sense of how to use and reuse our resources to create more growing opportunities that they may not have realized existed,” said Goodman.

“I also think it will help students appreciate and reconsider the food they eat on a daily basis, perhaps encourage them to make healthier food choices,” said Adanna.

“I like the idea of getting more students into gardening,” she said. “I think we can normalize gardening into becoming just another sustainable practice of life.”

People aren’t the only ones benefiting. In an effort to resuscitate the declining monarch butterfly population, milkweed was planted in the space five years ago.

The milkweed helps the monarchs to feed and lay eggs that hatch into caterpillars, which are taken inside (by 2nd-grade classes serving as “citizen scientists”) prior to their chrysalis stage to better their odds of emerging as butterflies.

The yearly decrease in the monarch butterfly’s population has been linked to the decline in the milkweed plant — a primary food for monarchs — from herbicide use in the monarch’s reproductive and feeding areas.

The milkweed in the gardens has turned PDS into a “way station” for the monarchs, known for their summer/autumn migration from the United States and southern Canada to Mexico.

The 2nd-grade teachers partnered with a network of educators who use monarch butterflies to teach a variety of concepts and skills (including character traits such as a sense of responsibility gained from caring for animals and the need to be responsible stewards of the environment) as well as the Green Network of Charlotte, which works to advance academics, health and sustainability through school gardens and outdoor learning.

“I will say that this is the most passionate I have ever seen students become about curricular items,” said Katie Carmichael, 2nd-grade teacher. “It is truly an interactive unit and the students love it.”

Spreading of Seeds

Charger Gardens was made possible in part by a PDS family who wanted to give back and support social responsibility, one of the school’s core values.

“When Charlie and I first started discussing what our potential Charging Forward campaign commitment could be, it didn’t take us long to know we wanted to impact social responsibility,” said Margot Brinley.

“We charged the school with how our philanthropy could impact both service learning and the academic program,” she said.

“When the concept of the gardens was presented to us, we really appreciated the cross-divisional service learning impact, the hands-on approach and the fact that our endowment would support this initiative in perpetuity,” said Charlie.

Through a gift to the campaign, the Brinleys established the Brinley Family Endowment, which supplements and supports the gardens so “students are able to find a compelling sense of purpose by engaging in work that personally resonates with them and has a clearly understood value to the community.”

“The Brinleys had a passion for social responsibility, and this endowment is a great illustration of fulfilling that passion and area of interest while still supporting the campaign,” said Jeffrey Appel, Associate Head of School for Institutional Advancement.

But the gardens have only begun to bloom.

Indoor initiatives are in the works, such as a hydroponic tower garden and boxes to grow wheatgrass and other microgreens to be donated. And there are long-term goals of a greenhouse that would allow the growing of leaf crops all year as well as seedlings such as those utilized by the local nonprofit Sow Much Good to help alleviate the problem of food deserts in the Charlotte community.

“We have big dreams,” said Hudson. “Right now we’re working on landscaping the (outdoor) space to be more functional and visitor friendly. It’s also important to make the space useable as a classroom.”

The gardens team would like to install a variety of plants, a terrace and seating area, a walking path and other features in the future. The beds also will be increased in size and relocated for better use of space and growing conditions.

The faculty and students want the gardens to take firm root at PDS. They envision the gardens becoming not only an active outdoor space utilized by classes across all grade levels, but also a pleasant sanctuary where the PDS community can go to relax and appreciate nature.

“Ideally, this space would serve as a living resource that continually pours as much into the wider community as it does back into our campus,” said Malwougbe.

“I can’t wait to see the way this space transforms over the next few years and see how the students add their unique styles to its design,” said Goodman.

Adanna believes with more student involvement, the gardens can become a “memorable and interactive part of campus,” a place where “perhaps one day students will even be able to walk through and pick their own snacks.”

“I think Providence Day is not only increasing its own standards of maintaining sustainable practices on campus, but also providing an example for other private schools to follow suit,” she said. “I think the gardens have the potential to be something much greater at PD, greater than what we could have imagined.”  

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