Noe Valley Voice May 2008

Green School, Green Kids

By Hilary Gordon

It's two in the afternoon, and school is over at Alvarado Elementary School on Douglass Street in Noe Valley. Second-grader Ruby Smith is watering the planter boxes in the upper yard with her mom, Mara Sieling. A California poppy is blooming bravely there in the midst of the after-school action. Sieling tells me the story of the Alvarado schoolyard garden, but stops for a moment to teach Ruby a little more about watering. "Let the water go on the roots, Ruby. You don't have to water the flower." In the schoolyard garden in the lower yard, another determined little girl with a watering can is carrying the vegetables a drink of water. Carefully, she soaks the soil at the base of a mustard green, and then moves on to the next plant.

Parents Rock the Yard

Mara Sieling is the chair of the school's greening committee, and has been working for years for a greener Alvarado. The school garden has been a longtime dream, and this spring for the first time, the kids harvested from their garden and made a stir-fry dish with vegetables they had grown themselves.

In the summer of 2006, the basic structure of the garden was built when the school was remodeled for wheelchair accessibility. The project slowed down during the 2006-07 school year, but this year the greening committee has made a lot of progress. Committee members ordered 80 cubic yards of soil. And then, with their own all-volunteer efforts on three weekends during the winter, these heroic parents worked with wheelbarrows, chutes, and shovels to move the soil into the garden beds. On one of those days, they were out there in slickers and boots in the pouring rain and mud as a huge pile of soil got carried from the upper yard to the garden beds in the lower yard. If Noe Valley gave environmental awards, these parents would deserve to be nominated.

Green Plans for Alvarado This Summer

The principal of Alvarado, Robert Broecker, was understandably proud as he spread the blueprints of the garden plans out on his table, to show a visitor how the garden would eventually look. The plans show the design for an extensive planting, which is scheduled to take place this summer. A total of 23 new trees will be added.

On the upper yard, trees will green and soften the playground, and surround the newly installed butterfly garden. On the lower yard, plans call for a small orchard of fruit trees, an outdoor teaching amphitheater, and an edible garden, with beds that individual classrooms can use for experiments and observations.

Broecker grinned as he showed off his pictures of the students working in the garden. The photos on his computer show happy, intent little faces, focused on their teamwork, planting, digging, and weeding. "It's important for kids to have something they can care for themselves, where they can have ownership. It's a chance for the whole school community to learn and grow together."

Students Love the Garden

Thomas Wang is an Alvarado parent who has spent time with the kids in the garden after school and on weekends. He helped organize the donations of seeds and plants that have allowed the garden to be growing already this year, before the formal landscape installation takes place this summer.

He says the impact the gardening project has had on the kids has been huge. "It's epic. The kids are happy beyond belief. It's not a ballgame, or a classroom. It's exploration, it's adventure, it's imagining. That's where the elves come out of the trees."

Wang described a student who brought him an ant pupae, carefully cupped in a little hand. "That kid was so excited. I'd never seen anything like it, and I'm an entymologist."

During the winter, when the garden was muddy, the kids could only go in if they had boots. But one student came in his boots and wore those boots all day just so he could go in the garden after school. Later he told Wang, "I want to stay here all night and work in the garden."

With guidance from Wang, who also teaches horticulture at City College, the kids have planted bok choy, collard greens, mustard greens, sweet peas, beans and corn, as well as flowers, like lupine, poppies, and baby blue eyes. Some of the young gardeners had never seen food growing before. "They say, 'Oh! So that's an apple tree. So that's corn!'" reports Wang. "There's no doubt about it, the garden is a transformative place." With a mulberry tree for raising silkworms, two fig trees, tomatoes, peppers, oregano, and parsley, the kids have a varied and productive garden to taste, smell, feel, see, and love.

Spring Is Great for Gardening with Kids

Whether you're 2 or 102, caring for a living thing and watching it grow can be a transformative experience.

If you have kids, now is a great time to take them to the nursery and let them pick out a plant. If you have a garden, they can plant it in the ground, but if not, a pot on a deck or a windowsill can work just as well. You can learn about it together, water it and watch it grow.

Growing even a little bit of food, a few lettuces, peas, or beans, even a sprawling zucchini if you have space, can add a whole new meaning to "eat your vegetables." Kids will enjoy watching their plants grow, and you can enjoy watching them grow!

Hilary Gordon is a professional gardener who lives on Douglass Street. She also teaches organic gardening at the nonprofit Garden for the Environment at Seventh Avenue and Lawton. Meet her there on any open garden day: Wednesday, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.; or Saturday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Fabulous Noe Valley Plant of the Month: California Poppy

The California Poppy, our state flower, is blooming freely now. Look for it in the street tree spaces on the northeast corner of Castro and 24th as you walk up the hill. Its bright silky flowers will be followed by small green seed pods that lengthen and turn brown as they ripen. California poppies are easy to grow from seed in your garden. What a fabulous Noe Valley plant!

Strawberry Trees Forever

Oops! Although widely planted in California, the Strawberry Tree, highlighted in last month's "How Green Is My Valley," is not, as we thought, a California native. According to Sunset magazine's Western Garden Book, the species Arbutus unedo comes from southern Europe and Ireland. Still, it has adapted so well to the Bay Area's rocky soil and windy climate, we can't help but consider the Strawberry Tree a favorite son.