Learning and Growing in the Garden

Learning and Growing in the Madera Elementary School Garden 

By Lisa Tsering

Meet Leah Ingram, Madera Elementary’s new Garden Coordinator for 2015-2016. A Madera alumna herself, “Miss Leah” has big plans ahead for our garden.

Leah looks forward to creating a long-term relationship with students, who will watch the garden grow and evolve during their years at Madera.

They are all so excited about helping and starting to grow plants,” she said about the students, whose classes will rotate in to visit the garden a total of 16 times over the semester. “They are also very excited about all the life in the garden and sharing that excitement and discovery with friends.

School gardens are an invaluable resource, providing hands-on opportunities for kids to enhance and integrate science, math, reading and environmental studies; discover fresh and healthy food choices; and develop a deeper appreciation of the environment.

First Lady Michelle Obama is a big proponent of school gardens, and makes them a cornerstone of Let’s Move, the White House initiative on child health; and West Contra Costa Unified School District has made gardens a priority of its 2015-2016 school year.

Madera Elementary has always been big on gardening, with projects located behind and around the school dating back as far as 1994, utilizing public and private grants. Our school officially “went green” in 2009 with the establishment of an edible garden.

There are lots of fruit trees, herbs, perennials, and annuals growing in the garden right now,” said Leah.

In addition to the original garden, there is now a production garden (located on the lower playground) run by Ms. Molly and the 6th graders. There is lots of produce growing there — beans, tomatoes, watermelons, and pumpkins, to name a few. There are also several chickens that are laying eggs and going to be sold at the Farmers Market.

Leah took over the garden this semester from Molly Wahl, who has done an incredible job on the garden over the past six years. “When the position opened up at Madera, I was a little hesitant about applying at first, knowing that Ms. Molly had built an incredible garden program for the school and it would be very big shoes to fill,” she explained. “But it was also the perfect opportunity for me to step up and work in the community that I was raised in.”

“Miss Leah” has a long-lasting connection to our school. A Madera alumna, former student of Ms. Schooley and classmate of Ms. Reyes, Leah graduated from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo with a degree in Landscape Architecture and minors in soil science, land rehabilitation and sustainable design.

My love for exploring, and an internship at the National Tropical Botanical Gardens, led me to working in conservation and education [on Hawaii’s Big Island and Kauai].  Eventually, I returned back to the East Bay to apply what I had learned in the community I was raised in as a child,” she said.

Leah was instrumental in building the Lafayette, Calif., Community Garden, and taught for the Alameda County Resource Conservation District and Sustainable Agriculture Education (SAGE). She also grows seedlings for Growing Strong Starts, and heads the Victory Garden at the critically acclaimed Assemble restaurant in Richmond.

Each grade at Madera learns about a different aspect of the garden. Kindergarteners will learn about seeds first, and as the students progress, they will learn about leaves and flowers, and then move on to learning about habitats and ecosystems, and later nutrition and the story of food and its relationship to our environment. Sixth graders take an even more in-depth approach, raising money with a U-Pick garden during the Madera ME! Games and working on the lower yard’s production garden.

Leah wants us to encourage our kids to get down and dirty. “Parents can foster a love for gardening at home by encouraging students to play and work outside,” she said.

“If possible, take them out to experience nature or even at home — simply turning soil, watering a plant, raking or sweeping.

“Allow your kids to get dirty and play in the soil — there are microorganisms in soil that when they come in contact with our skin literally release endorphins in our brains and stimulate happiness.

“Also, share the excitement and wonder that they see in the natural world. Give them praise for discovering the really cool leaf or rock that they find, and help point out to them the flowers or insects that you see, too.

“Share a love and foster sensitivity for the environment, all living creatures and the beauty of the world, and your children will learn from you. Parents can be kids’ most important teachers.”

Be sure to sign up for the ME Tree for updates on how you can get involved in the garden, with weeding parties, farmers’ markets and other fun activities.

Learn more about the Madera Garden program.