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School garden project tested students' perseverance, dedication

Neither vandals nor frost could keep a group of schoolchildren from earning a top state prize for growing fruit and vegetables.

ELISABETH DYER
Published June 6, 2003

WELLSWOOD - Students at Mendenhall Elementary eagerly pulled carrots while others weeded or watered plants. Seven-year-old Ashley Ortega carried the basket with the final harvest of the school year.

"I feel happy working hard," she said while toiling in the school garden last week. "And we get all these plants."

First-graders in Kim Long's class nurtured the garden since September and their work paid off.

They won first place in the single-class garden category of the 2003 Florida School Garden Competition.

The competition, in its sixth year, is sponsored by the University of Florida's Environmental Horticulture Department, Epcot International Flower and Garden Festival and the Florida Federation of Garden Clubs. Schools from across Florida participated.

A picture of the Mendenhall garden is on display at Epcot's Flower & Garden Festival through Sunday.

The gardens were judged on quality, educational relevance and level of involvement. Long's class of 22 won a Mickey Mouse-shaped medal, which they displayed in their classroom, and $500 that will go toward garden supplies next year.

Epcot officials said these young gardeners stood out because of their perseverance and dedication. Challenges never stopped them.

In January, the children returned from winter break to find someone had vandalized their garden, which is about the size of a small classroom. Vandals broke in half many of the sunflowers that had grown taller than the students and uprooted the tomatoes and peppers.

"We were sad when they destroyed our garden," said Tia'Yonna Pringle, a self-proclaimed great weeder.

"And mad," added 8-year-old Antonio Brooks.

But the class talked it over and decided to start again. They realized that not all people are good citizens.

To keep out future criminals, one of the students brought in a lock for the garden gate. The Home Depot on S Dale Mabry Highway donated plants.

Then came the freeze, which killed the remaining sunflowers. Students learned firsthand the tough life of a farmer.

Many of the students were already familiar with adversity. The majority at Mendenhall, just south of Hillsborough Avenue, receive free or reduced lunches. Some of the students are bused in from Robles Park, a public housing project in Tampa Heights.

Most live in apartments where they don't have gardens.

"Without the school garden, they would most likely never have an opportunity to work with the land," Long said.

She incorporated the garden into school lessons during the year. Students wrote stories describing pictures from the garden, did scientific experiments with Miracle-Gro and measured and graphed the growth of tomatoes. Spanish-speaking students taught their classmates words for the plants in Spanish.

This year, her class went on a field trip to Grandma's Hug-N-Farm in Crystal Springs where they learned about insects and organic gardening.

"The kids love being in the garden," Long said.

In September, students voted on what kinds of plants to grow. They wanted varieties they would enjoy eating.

"My favorite are strawberrys," said Barbara Gonzalez, both hands cradling a green berry still attached to the plant.

When they harvested the cabbage, they gave some to Foxy, the class guinea pig, and sampled cabbage soup. They took seeds from the sunflowers to plant new ones.

To close out the school year, they feasted on carrots with ranch dip. Handpicked, with pride.

- Elisabeth Dyer can be reached at 228-3321 or edyer@sptimes.com

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