This story was contributed by Martha Walker, retired newspaper and United Press International wire service reporter who also worked 22 years in corporate communications and market research.
What began as collaborative brainstorming between a Grandview High School teacher and a retired teacher who develops educational initiatives for Kansas City Community Gardens has introduced another generation to the relevance of gardening.
Former Grandview Health and Nutrition teacher Cassie Dolinar wanted to encourage her students to explore the benefits of gardening and more healthy food choices. Lois Hutchins, who oversees the design and development of KCCG’s Beanstalk Children’s Garden, wanted to experiment with more creative garden designs incorporated into traditional walkway landscapes. Together the teachers have challenged hundreds of high school kids to a classroom journey of discovery that included a garden design contest and a visit to the Beanstalk Children’s Garden to harvest their artistic landscape creations.
“The walkways at KCCG leading to the children’s garden were mud pools in the early spring,” Hutchins said, of the 3 by 12-foot, 3 x 11-foot and 3 x 8-foot shoulder beds that lined the garden entrance. The Beanstalk staff decided this would be the perfect spot to try out the project designs.
Dolinar and the Beanstalk staff first tried out their contest idea in the Spring of 2018 and it didn’t disappoint. KCCG Beanstalk Garden staff developed a sophisticated curriculum and headed to school at Grandview High. Students, armed with graph paper, plotted out artistic garden landscapes, complete with analyses of vegetable varieties, mature plant presentations, plant spacing and other requirements needed to win the contest. A panel of judges that included the Beanstalk staff and teachers chose a winning design from each Health and Nutrition class and winning designs were then planted in the KCCG walkway garden beds.
The experience exceeded expectations. “One of the things you want as a teacher is for your students to be involved in extracurricular activities. And many of the students that won the contest aren’t involved in anything so this gave them the opportunity to be excited and have ownership in a very positive, awesome experience.” Dolinar said.
It was such a success that the contest became part of the curriculum for 2019 and beyond. Dolinar has since moved to another teaching position at Grandview High School but current Health and Nutrition teacher, Kyla Serrano, picked up where she left off. Serrano dived into the garden design project this year and brought her students to the Beanstalk Garden for a harvest field trip after the designs were chosen and planted.
“My students gained so much from this learning experience. They learned about what vegetables look like from seed to plate, how to design a garden bed, what plants grow in the spring, how much work it takes to harvest, how little it costs to eat healthy, and tasting foods that they cleaned and dried,” said Serrano.
The experience also opened the kids’ eyes to opportunities beyond their own home or community garden plots to possibilities for careers in gardening-related jobs.
“Many of our staff members don’t have degrees in agronomy or horticulture,” Hutchins said. “We wanted to inspire the kids to think about the benefits of gardening and fresh produce for them, the relevance of gardening for them and their communities and to think about possibilities for careers.”
When the projects began, the high school kids were a little skeptical; few had had any experience in gardening and figured gardening was mostly for old people.
“But quickly they identified concerns for people to eat healthy and they recognized that collaborative gardening could build community while addressing hunger,” Hutchins said. “Students also thought community gardening could enhance community safety as more people participated and got to know each other.
The kids also became mindful advantages to gardening and they learned a bit about setting longer-term goals with delayed gratification while the seeds grew into edible produce.
Joy Keelher, 9th grade, was one of the winners from her class. “I could incorporate more vegetables into my diet. I could also grow my own vegetables because it’s easier than I thought. My garden got chosen so that was awesome!”
After the students harvested their beds, they got to enjoy the fruits of their labor by eating a salad that they prepared themselves. Leftover vegetables were then bagged up and donated to fellow students.
Help us inspire more kids in the Beanstalk Children’s Garden
Gifts to the Beanstalk Garden help us to provide inspiring educational experiences to more than 4,500 children, youth and family members each year. Our visitors see, touch, smell and taste growing plants – learning valuable lessons about science, nutrition and healthy food choices.
Make a gift today at kccg.org/donate.