DALLAS — Seven-year-old Karmen Mudd dug her finger into the cool, damp dirt, scooping a shallow hole in the raised bed.
The winter air was misty and chilly —perfect weather for planting leafy greens like spinach, experts say.
“First you dig a little hole. Then you drop some seeds in there,” said Karmen in a sing-song voice with a chorus of other John J. Pershing Elementary first-graders.
She continued with the song, “Cover them with lots of dirt. Give them water, song and care.”
In the hole, she placed three seeds, smoothing a blanket of soil on top and then shoving her dirt-stained hands in the pockets of her black hoodie that covered a head of braids.
Eventually, sprouts of green — early signs of leafy spinach — will poke through the ground of this school garden. Nearby, dark green zucchini squashes larger than the size of a ruler overflowed from a wooden trough bed.
“Spinach is my favorite food … vegetable,” said Karmen, correcting herself.
It’s been five years since Pershing Elementary teachers, parents, volunteers and students planted this outdoor space in a courtyard of the Preston Hollow school. Follow the stone pathway lined with boulders past the chicken coop, small pond and knock out rose bushes to a covered outdoor classroom with tree stumps for chairs.
On school breaks, teachers and administrators volunteer to tend to the garden, pulling weeds and feeding the chickens.
“Classrooms, as great as they are, some of the learning is artificial. And in that artificial space, you’re trying to teach them about the world,” Pershing principal Margarita Hernandez said. “School gardens are trending, but they’re trending for the right reasons. It’s a lot of social, emotional balance and multisensory connections to everything you do.”
In 2011, Pershing was one of the first REAL School Gardens planted. The Fort Worth-based nonprofit partners with high-poverty schools to create learning gardens and train teachers on how to use them to improve student engagement and academic achievement.
Since then, the organization has planted more than a hundred gardens in Texas, including one in November at John H. Reagan Elementary in Oak Cliff.
Scott Feille, executive director of REAL School Gardens, said teachers want their students “to have real-world experiences.”
“They want them to have an opportunity to get outside of the classroom, to get outside of the book, to have a space other than the classroom or oftentimes the apartment where they live that has very little green space and to experience the world in a hands on way,” said Feille, a former fifth-grade teacher.
A WINDOW TO THE OUTSIDE
Pershing sits on a tree-lined street across from the neighborhood where former President George W. Bush and Laura Bush live.
But the school’s students aren’t raised in the upper-class homes that surround the school. At Pershing, about 90 percent of students are low income and more than 60 percent are English Language Learners, according to the school’s 2014-2015 Texas Education Agency report card.
“My kids are growing up just looking through life really through a window,” Hernandez said. “They go from door to door. And when you go door to door, how enriching of a life can you have if you don’t go out and explore?”
Ask Karmen about the garden, and she’ll tell you not to go near poisonous plants, eat vegetables so you “stay healthy” and that tadpoles live in the pond.
And she’ll talk with enthusiasm about a butterfly she followed as it fluttered to its perch on a flower.
“We can’t feel pictures because the pictures aren’t real,” she said. “Outside, you can feel it.”
School gardens aren’t a new phenomenon. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the federal government has encouraged school gardening since the early 1900s, when it built a School Garden Army during World War I and supported victory gardens at schools during World War II.
Now, there are more than 7,000 school gardens in the country, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Farm to School census.
“You see it exploding now because of the obesity epidemic in kids and food deserts in areas of need,” said Jeff Raska, a project specialist at Texas AgriLife Extension Program, who has helped plant gardens in Dallas County and built the chicken coop for Pershing’s garden.
A teacher in the 1990s, Hernandez planted small, raised bed garden outside her portable to teach students math and science lessons
“With those gardens, once the person who’s the driving force behind it leaves, if no one else has the same passion, those gardens go to waste, they’re not kept up and soon they’re dismantled,” she said.
REAL School Gardens reports about 97 percent of its gardens are still in use, including some planted a decade ago.
“At schools where the garden is being used regularly for instruction, it becomes embedded in the culture of the school like a computer lab or a library,” Feille said.