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The Dry Garden: If critics would stop picking on the school garden, they might learn a thing or two

January 29, 2010 |  8:58 am
LeoPoliti1A rant in the current Atlantic magazine argues that a plague of school gardens – thousands! – is returning the children of California’s Latino immigrants to the kind of stoop labor that their families struggled to escape.

“Cultivating Failure” tilts at the groupies of celebrity chef Alice Waters and her Edible Schoolyard program in such an entertaining way that it’s a pity that so little of the article is true. Although some privately funded school gardens in California -- maybe five -- involve the kind of “eco-gastronomy” programs during school hours that were so richly ridiculed by the Atlantic, the remaining multitude are more likely to have a small wooden planter outside the classroom kept by a science teacher to raise milkweed for a butterfly experiment. Urban wildlife, after all, is on the third-grade curriculum.

In Los Angeles, the need for school gardens goes beyond the ways that these spaces can serve as outdoor classrooms for enterprising teachers. Here, where parks are few and far between, even planted boxes amount to small Edens.

Occasionally kids, parents and the faculty have worked together to capture a meaningful swath of land and have created a true garden, the kind you can stand in and walk through. These landscapes don’t pull kids from class but create campuses where they are more likely to stay after school, where their parents happily become involved and where there is a prospect of shade and air that is fit to breathe (no small matter in Los Angeles).

Just such a garden was installed before Christmas at an elementary school near downtown Los Angeles named for the late painter, urban naturalist and children’s author Leo Politi. Nearly 300 volunteers worked on weekends to remove Bermuda grass from a largely neglected knoll behind the library. The chief loss of this largely ornamental space? The sound of mowers and blowers during school hours next to the library. To read more about the garden, click to the jump ...

Working on the slope, kids and adults planted native oaks at the top, a band of chaparral sages in the middle ground and a vernal pond with riparian grasses at the foot.

LeoPoliti2 Some funding and horticultural advice came from the Audubon Society and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The installation is chronicled in the Western Tanager, the bimonthly publication of Los Angeles Audubon.

Contrary to the Atlantic’s argument, the Leo Politi work was not done at the expense of the curriculum, but in addition to it. Visit on a Thursday afternoon and you will find second grade teacher Linda Dowell using the garden as a teaching tool for an after-school program for gifted students.

The day that I visited, 30 or so children were given pictures and common names of plants from their garden, then were asked to look up the botanical names, history and applications using library computers.

Show me a campus where creating beauty and teaching reading, writing, Latin and systematics after school is an example of “cultivating failure,” and I might back down. But not until then. Bravo, Leo Politi.

-- Emily Green

Green's column on sustainable gardening appears here weekly. She also writes on water issues at www.chanceofrain.com.

Photos, from top: At Leo Politi Elementary School, plant identification tags had been made with stakes and cross sections of Christmas tree trunks. Credit: Emily Green. Principal Bradley Rumble helps children in an after-school program research garden questions on the computer. Credit: Emily Green.
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