School gardens thrive along Richmond Highway corridor
The Richmond Highway corridor in Fairfax County has been getting increasingly “green” with gardens, thanks in part to Fairfax County Public Schools’ (FCPS) Get2Green environmental stewardship program; motivated administration, staff, students and parent teacher associations (PTA); and the support of community partners — particularly the Arcadia Center for Sustainable Food and Agriculture.
Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, Get2Green data showed 89 schools across the entire county self-reporting as having an edible garden and 41 schools being interested in starting one. While the pandemic caused some schools to pause their garden programs during the 2020-2021 school year, some of them restarted the following academic year or plan to do so this year, said an FCPS spokesperson. The school system has not indicated, however, when it will restart its garden to cafeteria program, which FCPS Food and Nutrition Services and Get2Green had piloted at several schools along the corridor with the support of Arcadia.
Juan Pablo Echeverria, outreach and education manager at Arcadia, is optimistic that garden activities will pick up again this year. He personally has worked closely with several of the schools, adapting his services to the needs of each garden and what the schools are capable of handling.
“Gardens can fall down on the list of priorities, but I feel like there’s a renewed interest and understanding of the importance of outdoor education,” said Echeverria. “I think a lot of schools are heading into this fall and spring with more time and effort invested into expanding programs.”
This past summer, Arcadia held the second year of its Live, Eat, Grow Youth Internship Program with seven teenagers from the West Potomac and Mount Vernon School Pyramids. As part of their internship, the students learned intensive gardening skills and were paired with local gardens — including ones at Gum Springs Community Center and West Potomac High School — where they have been helping with garden management, and planting and harvesting produce.
Thanks to input from Arcadia, school administrative and staff members, and PTA representatives, On the MoVe is able to provide brief updates on school gardens around the Richmond Highway corridor, starting from the north end and traveling south.
- Quander Road School: The COVID-19 pandemic took its toll on the Quander Road School’s large garden, according to Principal Frank Tranfra Jr., but the staff has been focusing its attention on a smaller courtyard garden and has plans to get the bigger garden back up and running this year.
- West Potomac High School: The school’s garden, which includes flowers, herbs, vegetables and a grapevine, has been active around seven or eight years, said Danielle Tapsoba, a severe disabilities teacher at West Potomac. Once perceived as “her garden,” it is now attracting broader interest from teachers, counselors and students who want to help out. Some of the youth participants in Arcadia’s summer internship program are completing their service hours at the West Potomac garden. Tapsoba hopes to get a rain barrel in working order and figure out how best to use the garden’s harvest, which previously has been given to workers at the school. Staff members at the Pulley Career Center, co-located at West Potomac, hope to restore the center’s greenhouse — which was inadvertently knocked down during the high school’s renovation — to teach some form of gardening, said Arcadia’s Echeverria.
- Bucknell Elementary School: This past spring, Bucknell Elementary received a mini grant from the Audubon Society to start a community garden, which they kicked off on Earth Day with help from West Potomac High School volunteers. Bucknell’s PTA, Hollin Meadows Elementary School Outdoor Education, Bryant High School, GrandInvolve and Arcadia also have been actively involved with the rapidly expanding garden, which is being used for outdoor education. During the recent open house for the 2022-2023 school year, students and families got to tour the gardens, enjoy samples and sign up for the garden committee.
- Bryant High School: Bryant got its garden kicked off this past school year, thanks to the arrival of biology teacher Brooke LaPorta, who previously worked at Quander Road School and has been a park naturalist at Huntley Meadows for many years. LaPorta’s goal is to have gardens all around the school, including a pond with rain gardens for education, ornamental gardens at the school entrance, vegetable gardens — currently there are four beds and a barrel of mint — and pollinator gardens. Besides having educational purposes, the gardens are meant to be therapeutic, said LaPorta, who noted that the gardens have enhanced school attendance. Arcadia is helping support the growth of Bryant’s vegetable gardens, and Bryant, in turn, is helping Bucknell Elementary with its garden build-out.
- Hybla Valley Elementary School: Prior to the pandemic, Hybla Valley had received a grant and was considering purchasing a hydroponic gardening system, according to Arcadia.
- Hollin Meadows Elementary School: Hollin Meadows’ overgrown garden spaces were transformed into thriving and bountiful gardens during the 2021-2022 school year, wrote PTA President Erin Anderson in an employee recognition note, thanks to outdoor education teacher Mary Charlton. Charlton, who previously was a garden/outdoor learning leader at Stratford Landing Elementary and who has worked both with and for Arcadia, helped distribute over 7,000 pounds of produce grown in the gardens to students facing food insecurity, according to Anderson. This year, Charlton hopes to build the school’s 24’ x 30’ greenhouse, expand the organic production garden space and sensory garden, and continue overseeing the school’s annual Earth Day plant sale.
- Mount Vernon Woods Elementary School: Mount Vernon Woods started a small garden in the courtyard this past spring, according to Arcadia. The beds are being used to support science instruction and encourage environmental stewardship.
- Walt Whitman Middle School: The middle school has a thriving garden program with 27 beds up and running, according to science teacher Beverly Morgan, and the students do most of the work. Morgan is particularly interested in growing unique or unusually colored produce, like red and yellow carrots, dragon tongue beans and dinosaur kale. This past summer, the school held a garden camp where students had the opportunity to sample different fruits and vegetables from the garden and local farmers market, as well as work in the garden and harvest tatsoi and oregano. Among her future plans, Morgan hopes to expand the garden camp program, build an herb garden, help students learn how to make a rain barrel, and develop an entire middle school curriculum around STEM and gardens to bridge the education gap between elementary and high school.
- Riverside Elementary School: Riverside’s claim to fame is its Green Flag Award from the National Wildlife Federation’s (NWF) Eco-Schools program — NWF’s highest honor for environmental sustainability. Riverside began this quest in 2016, said Kathleen Herron, a Title I resource teacher at the school. When COVID-19 threatened to stop their quest for green flag status, Herron went through the requirements checklist with NWF in virtual format and managed to secure the award. This year, Herron aims to increase outdoor learning opportunities. Riverside’s edible gardens include a variety of herbs, vegetables and fruits, which are harvested by students. The school’s custodial staff has taught students about peanut farming, which requires stomping on stems to spread the roots.
- Stratford Landing Elementary School: Stratford Landing’s garden fell out of use during the pandemic, but Arcadia volunteers visited this summer to clean up the school’s Discovery Garden space, which has 20 raised beds. Arcadia’s Echeverria is hopeful about reviving the garden as the school had won several grants in recent years with which it acquired a greenhouse and hydroponic system.
- Waynewood Elementary School: Members of the Waynewood PTA SEEDS (Supporting Education through Environmental Discovery Squad) said they began planning their school gardens in 2018 and actual planting the following year. The gardens include a native pollinator bed, raised beds containing vegetables and herbs donated by Arcadia, a sensory garden and a shade bed, designed and planted by the Garden Club of Waynewood. The gardens are used for education and to feed students and the community, including via the United Community food bank and Groveton Baptist Church’s Friday food distribution. This upcoming year, SEEDS hopes to start a school-wide composting program and kindergarten progressive pumpkin patch, and has developed a plan for offering gardening as an enrichment program at Waynewood.
- Mount Vernon High School: According to Arcadia’s Echeverria, the high school has a beautiful courtyard space with a vegetable garden.
- Woodlawn Elementary School: This past May, Woodlawn Scholars from the Advanced Academics Programs set up a hydroponic farmstand they received with a grant from Lettuce Grow.
- Woodley Hills Elementary School: Arcadia is in talks with Woodley Hills about reviving a garden space there.
- Fort Belvoir Elementary School: Fort Belvoir Elementary’s STEAM classes have benefited from a Department of Defense Education Activity grant called Project OWL (Outdoors While Learning). STEAM/science teacher Kara Fahy said she loves helping kids make connections with native plants, so they have an established area for that, as well as several garden beds. In July 2021, the school received a “Project Learning Garden” grant. Designed to improve healthy eating and to support STEAM education, the grant enabled the school to set up additional raised garden beds where students can help select what is planted. One of the gardens is a “pizza garden,” said Fahy, where the children grow various herbs and tomatoes. Moving forward, the school hopes to install rain gardens and get more parents involved in gardening activities.