A garden made with heart

Jacob Wiens teacher kick-starts school garden

Stephanie McCravey-Cooper/Jacob Wiens Elementary
A young student holds some garden-grown strawberries in March 2018.

■ Olivia Gildea / Reporter

Jacob Wiens’ Heart & Soil Garden Club meets twice a week after school. The students, led by fifth grade teacher Stephanie McCravey-Cooper, do everything from turning compost and monitoring the life cycles of ladybugs and butterflies, to planting seeds, harvesting the fruit and vegetables, and of course, eating them.
Last year, the school grew so much okra and squash that they decided to set up a booth at the Harvest Festival and sell them out of brown paper bags. As if that doesn’t sound magical enough, they used the proceeds to buy hummingbird nectar.
But the garden didn’t just grow itself. McCravey-Cooper arrived on-scene at Jacob Wiens in August 2015, and immediately noticed an open patch of land in an unused corner of the playground.
“I was told that previous attempts at a garden were unsuccessful, but I was up for the challenge,” McCravey-Cooper explains. “Initially, I thought I could do it myself, but the ground was too hard. The soil was terrible and there were too many bugs and spiders.”
So, McCravey-Cooper decided to write a letter.
“I knew Home Depot had the resources, so I asked,” McCravey-Cooper says.
Once Home Depot showed real interest in the project, McCravey-Cooper began researching and wrote a grant. The rest, as it seems, is history. Home Depot approved the grant, and after a year of further approvals, liability insurance and recruiting volunteers to help install the garden, several flatbed trucks rolled onto the blacktop playground at Jacob Wiens and began unloading garden supplies.

Stephanie McCravey-Cooper/Jacob Wiens Elementary
Students pose at the Jacob Wiens garden entrance with bags of fresh-picked greens in October 2017.

The grant approved Jacob Wiens for a $8,000 cash donation, with an additional $4,000 of item donations that included mulch, plants and lumber. By the beginning of the 2016 school year, Jacob Wiens had undergone a green face-lift. An entire corner of the playground had been devoted to garden boxes, trellises, benches and trees. Spaces around the school’s foundation were filled with small palms and perennials. Students were ready to get their hands dirty.
Currently, the garden complements the existing curriculum. Topics that students would typically be learning from science books are brought to life in front of them, with the garden as their working laboratory. Life science, earth science and entomology are all represented in the student lessons as they learn about pollination, hybrid species, insects and soil. Research time is spent looking up organic bug sprays, which is put to good use when out working on the crops.
While the grass wasn’t always this green at Jacob Wiens, it certainly doesn’t seem that way today. Stepstone walkways take visitors through an array of gardens all located on the school’s grounds, from herbs to ornamentals. In the summer, six-foot tall sunflowers and trailing squash vines transform the garden into an urban jungle. Come fall, students armed with green thumbs and garden gloves begin pulling old crops and planning the new season’s harvest.
When the newspaper caught up with McCravey-Cooper in April, she and the students were getting ready to plant cotton, gourds, brussel sprouts, pumpkins, watermelons and eggplant for a bountiful summer harvest. Students beamed with excitement as they caught first glimpses of grapes coming in, and learned about natural pest management as they released over 4,500 ladybugs to help control aphids and whiteflies.
As the school year comes to an end, students and teachers are preparing to pack away their books and take a well-deserved vacation. Some will visit the garden over summer, and others will wait until that first day of school to see the lush green landscape again. More will move on to the next school, bringing with them memories of tastes and sights of the garden, and perhaps, even looking forward to one day joining an agriculture program in high school.
While those students’ future endeavors are unknown as of yet, McCravey-Cooper’s only hope is that their green past may lead to an even greener future. But for now, Jacob Wiens will kick back and enjoy some strawberry mint lemonade—fresh from the garden, made with heart and soil.

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