Tuesday, November 20, 2012

From Seed to Table with Dillard University Community Development Corporation

As the bus full of 4th and 5th grade Langston Hughes scholars drove up Gentilly Boulevard, a group of white stone buildings came into view, bordered by manicured lawns and mature live oaks.  The bus approached a traffic light, swung a left and entered the campus of Dillard University.

For some of our scholars, this visit was the first time they had stepped foot on a college campus.  All of them were impressed by the architecture, the landscaping, and finally, the reason why they were here: Dillard's state-of-the-art greenhouse.

Last spring, Louisiana Blue Cross Blue Shield awarded a generous Impact Grant to fund a partnership between the Dreamkeeper Garden and the Dillard University Community Development Corporation.  The goals of the partnership are to provide hands-on experience growing food from seed-to-table, expand the size and capacity of the Dreamkeeper Garden, develop a mentoring program between Dillard and LHA students, and increase food access and awareness to the Gentilly neighborhood.  This initial class visit was the first step in that direction.

As LHA scholars entered the greenhouse for the first time, they met to their "Botany Buddies" - Dillard botany students who would act as mentors, teachers, and partners.  After some get-to-know-you time, scholars and Botany Buddies worked together to propagate some seeds that would germinate and grow in the greenhouse, in preparation for their final destination in the Dreamkeeper Garden.

Over the next few weeks, scholars and Botany Buddies shared what they had learned about seeds, photosynthesis, and different ways to grow plants.  Together, they've been maintaining the greenhouse and taking care of their seedlings, watching patiently as the growth process unfolds.

Many of our scholars share the dream of attending college, and some would be the first person in their families to enroll.  Spending time with their Botany Buddies on a college campus has provided them with role models who've held similar dreams and made them into reality.  Scholars at LHA hear the message over and over again, and with our Dillard partnership they see it firsthand: with effort and dedication, dreams of attending college can come true.

After weeks of care we saw our seedlings mature into outdoor-ready plants.  On a chilly Thursday morning the Botany Buddies arrived at LHA to transplant cabbage, kale, broccoli, and other fall vegetables into the production rows.

These plantings marked a special moment in the history of the Dreamkeeper garden.  Our dream of a full seed-to-table educational experience came one step closer to reality, as did our dream of expanding access to fresh, healthy food for LHA families and the Gentilly community.  In a few months these vegetables will go directly to families as part of our Family Supported Agriculture (FSA) initiative, a program in which LHA families help grow and maintain the garden in exchange for a box of fresh, organic produce.

Every new idea beings like a seed: small but with great potential.  In the coming months and years, we're hoping to foster a shift in the community that brings people together, broadens access to good food, and supports people in living healthier lifestyles.  With nurturing, persistence, and the support of our partners, we'll help that seed grow.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Garden Class for Everyone? No problem!

After weeks of experimenting, a 4th grade scholar found a way
to get monarch butterflies to climb on his fingers!
This year for the first time the Dreamkeeper Garden is able to offer classes to every single scholar at Langston Hughes Academy.  You read that right, every single one!  Because of scheduling changes this year and expanded specials offerings, the garden team has been able to offer garden classes to Middle School scholars with three daily electives.

The next few posts will offer a glimpse into each of our classes, all the way from Kindergarten to 8th grade.  Today we'll begin with our 4th and 5th grade daily elective class.

The scholars in this class chose garden as their elective at the beginning of the first trimester, and we see them every day except Wednesdays.  This elective gives students the opportunity to get in-depth knowledge of the skills and science of organic gardening.

Chopping compost is more fun with a friend.
On Mondays and Tuesdays we might learn about different types of seeds, or perhaps how best to propagate different vegetables and ornamental plants.  Every Thursday we travel to Dillard University to work with botany students in their campus greenhouse (more on that later!) and every Friday we harvest vegetables, chop discarded fruit for compost, and prepare a healthy garden snack.

By the end of the trimester, scholars will know how to start their own garden from scratch, and have a few neat tricks for preparing the food they've grown.  For the first time, we're able to offer the kind of seed-to-table experience that we've been dreaming about for years!

At the end of a hard week's work, scholars enjoy some guacamole!

Friday, September 14, 2012

Recovering from Hurricane Isaac

Last week during the 7th anniversary of hurricane Katrina, New Orleans experienced another significant weather event: Hurricane Isaac.  While the storm caused extensive flooding and damage in several nearby parishes, the damage in Orleans parish thankfully was limited to minor flooding, fallen trees, and downed power lines.  The thoughts and prayers of the staff, faculty and scholars at LHA are with those who experienced pain or loss in any form as a result of the storm.

The garden lost a picnic table - fortunately the worst of the damage.
Here at the Dreamkeeper garden we did everything we could think of to prepare for the storm.  We packed up tools and signs, turned over picnic tables and benches, and even made an emergency indoor shelter for our chickens.

The chickens weathered the storm inside, and are doing just fine! 
As the storm approach the announcement went out: school would be cancelled all week.  With Labor Day the following Monday, scholars went 10 full days without one day in school.  When we arrived back last Tuesday we hit the ground running.  Scholars and Dreamkeepers immediately got to work helping the garden recover.  We raked debris from paths, staked fallen fruit trees and edible plants, and replaced benches and tables.

A scholar and a Dreamkeeper work together to replace
tree stump seats that hurricane Isaac knocked over
Luckily for us we had our first Open Garden Day of the year planned for September 8th.  On Saturday, we received volunteers from Louisiana Delta Service Corps, City Year New Orleans, Junior League of New Orleans, Tulane University School of Medicine, New Orleans Outreach, and Hands on New Orleans.

A group of volunteers harvests basil from damaged plants
Some volunteers pruned, pulled and harvested from damaged basil plants that had been knocked on their sides or uprooted by wind gusts of 80 mph or more.  Others deconstructed garden beds, pulling nails and removing wooden frames to reconfigure the garden as part of our long-term design.

Another group worked on our garden expansion, weeding and re-forming lasagna layer rows whose shape had eroded from the wind and heavy rains.

With the help of our whole garden community - scholars, Dreamkeepers and volunteers - our garden looks as good as new, and ready for the upcoming fall planting season.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

In the Trenches...

Volunteers from Bishop Eustace Prep, showing off their handiwork
The solstice has come and gone and our students have left the Dreamkeeper garden for the summer.  Eggplant and pepper leaves droop beneath the unforgiving summer sun as temperatures reach into the 90's before noon.  Tomato plants give out as the heat overwhelms their spring sensibilities, and everything that remains just looks thirsty.

Most days the only sounds in the garden are chickens clucking or the occasional gardener watering.

On the bright side, the mix of materials in our lasagna layers is finally breaking down into soil, and the rows should be ready for planting in just a couple months!  The only problem is this: with over 800 new feet of growing space, how are we going to water it all?!

Normally we water the Dreamkeeper garden by hand.  We turn on a hose and let it run, moving from raised bed to raised bed until all the soil in the garden is moist.  Once the lasagna layers are ready, watering by hand would take at least an extra hour, if not two.

Instead of giving ourselves more work every week, we've decided to install an irrigation system to water our plants for us.  When completed, the system will run on a timer and send water from the school's supply directly to the plants.

So how do we get water to the plants without having clumsy pipes for our scholars to step on?  Easy!  We bury them underground!  Well... not so easy, as it turns out.  Most of the soil in our garden is pure clay, which is the hardest kind of soil to dig because it's so thick and heavy.

Luckily for us, New Orleans Outreach and Rustic Pathways had volunteers at the ready to help us dig through that tough clay.  Last Wednesday we had more than twenty volunteers who came all the way from Bishop Eustace Prep in Pennsauken, New Jersey.
When we started digging we had no idea how long it would take to break through the clay.  Each trench had to be dug between 12 and 24 inches deep and six to eight inches wide, and each trench would be dozens of feet long!

The volunteers worked quickly, each starting with their own short section of trench and expanding it in either direction.  In less than an hour we had made a pretty big dent, and by the time we were done, all the trenches for one half of the lasagna layers had connected up!
...and after!  A job well done.
All in all we managed to dig over 80 feet of trenches!  Thanks to our volunteers' hard work we're on schedule for the completion of our irrigation project (knock on wood! or PVC!).

Our next post will feature more of the design process, including the building and installation of the underground piping system.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Fresh Blueberries and New Buddies!

Last week our first and fourth grade scholars got a very special springtime treat: a trip to a blueberry farm!  30 scholars from each grade took a day-long trip to J & D Blueberry Farm in Poplarville, Mississippi, 75 miles away from the Dreamkeeper Garden!

Blueberries growing on a bush.  Almost ripe!
Scholars were met by Mr. Jeff, who moved to Poplarville and opened the farm after Hurricane Katrina.  Mr. Jeff gave our scholars a tour of his farm, which includes several varieties of blueberries and other fruits such as persimmons and asian pears.

Farmer Jeff demonstrates how to pick a blueberry
Scholars paired up with a buddy so every fourth grader had a first grade buddy and vice versa.  Fourth graders helped their first grade buddies as needed and first graders kept their fourth grade buddies on task!  Buddies worked well together, and some even came away with new friends!

Fourth and first grade buddies, making quick friends!
After the tour each scholar got a big brown bag to fill as with as many blueberries as they could pick to bring home!  Farmer Jeff showed scholars how to pick blueberries: gently, by rolling the fruits off the stems so as not to damage the plant.  After the quick harvesting lesson scholars descended upon the blueberry bushes weaving in and between rows, sometimes bending down or standing on their tiptoes, sometimes reaching far into the tangled branches of a blueberry bush, all in a quest for the perfect ripe round berries.

A first grade scholar shows off her harvest!
During lunch farmer Jeff told everyone about some of the health benefits of blueberries including cancer-fighting antioxidants.  Scholars didn't need any convincing to eat these natural and nutritious treats!  Nothing quite compares to the sweet and tart taste of fresh blueberries.  

First grade scholars enjoy delicious fresh blueberries!

Thursday, May 24, 2012

A Growing Opportunity

Wow it's been a busy spring for the Dreamkeeper Garden!  After a winter filled with greens, greens, and more greens, the garden is starting to get back some of its other hues: yellow and orange tomatoes, red strawberries and hot peppers, purple eggplants, and flowers of many colors.  Springtime is such a time for growth.

Plants aren't the only thing that grows in spring.  It's also a time for our scholars to grow, and just as the seasons were turning some of our middle school scholars participated in a growing opportunity of their own.

30 scholars headed over to Grow Dat Youth Farm for "Growing Opportunity," a special event sponsored by the NCAA, Tulane University, and Grow Dat Youth Farm.  Our scholars spent the day working alongside student athletes from Tulane to plant 64 blackberry bushes and 32 fruit trees, symbolizing the number of teams in the first two rounds of the NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament.  The group planted four families of trees in total - blackberries, citrus, fig, and avocado – to represent the Final Four which took place in New Orleans.

Speakers at the event highlighted the importance of creating social, civic, and economic opportunities for youth in New Orleans.  Grow Dat works towards those ends by creating a healthy and supportive work environment for New Orleans high schoolers who face limited job opportunities.  In 2012, Grow Dat hopes to employ 20 teenagers to grow 10,000 pounds of food!

Trees often don't bear fruit for years after they're planted, but with diligence and care they become a source of sustenance.  Just like planting fruit trees, the work of creating opportunities for youth involves patience, commitment, and an eye toward the future.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012


2nd grade scholars locate and inspect a snail during a pest hunt

Another snail caught eating a leaf of swiss chard!
Springtime is perhaps the most beautiful time of year for the Dreamkeeper Garden.  As the days grow longer the sun reaches higher in the sky and gives more and more of its plentiful solar energy to our plants leaves.  The garden is home to so many kinds of leaves!  Dark ones and light ones, dull ones and bright ones, crinkly or smooth, pointy or obtuse.

While our plants grow larger and more abundant, hordes of hungry critters seek out their nutrition and energy.  From a distance the leaves look healthy and rich, but a closer look reveals small round holes spaced out about the surface.  Turn the leaf over and you might find the culprit!  Perhaps a snail or a worm, an aphid or a caterpillar.  These hungry little things want a piece of the garden, too!

Recently our scholars have been learning about food chains.  There are many food chains in the garden, and the one we care about includes us, humans!  In this food chain, like in all food chains, the sun is the source of all energy in the garden, feeding our plants with its light.  The plants then produce food through photosynthesis using sunlight, water and carbon dioxide.   Next, we humans get energy by harvesting and eating the plants, and the food chain is complete.

Spiky buckmoth caterpillars!
When pests come to snack on our leaves they sneak their way into the human food chain, taking energy that we humans want for ourselves!  Over the next few weeks our scholars will be hard at work removing pests to keep our plants healthy, happy and growing.
A scholar carefully inspects both
sides of a cabbage leaf

Because we only use sustainable gardening practices we do almost all pest control by hand.  We turn leaves over, plucking snails or worms off one at a time.  Instead of using chemicals to spray aphids, we simply use soapy water to dry them out.  As for spiky buckmoth caterpillars?  We remove them with gloved hands and dispose of them in a big bucket of water.

Fortunately the pests are focusing on winter greens like cabbage, collards, kale, and chard that are nearing the end of their life cycle.  In a week or two they'll be ready to harvest and our seasonal pest problem should be solved!

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

A Visit to an Urban Farm

One way we become better gardeners is by learning from others who do it well.  Last Friday the Junior Master Gardeners' Club got to do just that, taking an after-school trip to Hollygrove Market and Farm. The site, located in the Hollygrove neighborhood just a few miles from school, includes a small urban farm, a community garden and a produce market that gets all its vegetables from small farms in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama.

Scholars and Dreamkeepers tour the grounds at Hollygrove Market and Farm
A friendly and knowledgeable Hollygrove staff member took scholars around the farm showing us their rows of irrigated crops, state-of-the-art aquaponics system for vertical and soil-free growing, and their chicken coop.  Scholars were already familiar with some features at Hollygrove including the compost system, drip irrigation, and the varieties of produce growing in the ground.

Hollygrove's soil-free aquaponics system

Just like the Dreamkeeper Garden, Hollygrove shows that it's possible to grow healthy food sustainably in an urban environment.  It takes a little space and a lot of hard work, but it's so important to grow food that nourishes us, brings people together, improves our local food economy, and makes New Orleans just a little more beautiful.

Chickens and their coop

We hope our trip to Hollygrove gave our scholars some good ideas to take back to the Dreamkeeper Garden.  More importantly, we hope that scholars will become leaders in imagining what a better food future might look like.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Open Garden Day!

This past Saturday, March 3rd the Dreamkeeper Garden hosted its first Open Garden Day of 2012!  On Friday night the weather report warned of morning thunderstorms that could have forced us to cancel, but Saturday we awoke to forgiving skies and a milder morning forecast.  Open Garden Day was on.
Volunteers from Tulane InterDisciplinary Experiences Seminars (TIDES) and Notre Dame Mission Volunteers Americorps (NDMVA) began trickling in around 9 AM and within a half hour were well underway.

Some volunteers grabbed spade shovels, garden forks or metal rakes to add a thick layer of stable sweepings to the top of our lasagna layers.  Compacted rows grew into fluffy mounds of sawdust and manure, arching upwards as if taking a deep breath.  With any luck, this most recent layer will build enough soil to have our rows ready for planting by the start of the next school year.

Others grabbed ladders, brushes and sealant to add a waterproof coating to our shed and to our new KaBoom! benches.  Light browns darkened with each stroke, a gradual guarantee of protection for wood against rain.

Even without thunderstorms the elements tried our resolve.  Cold winds blew throughout the day accompanied by the occasional drizzle, drawing shivers from the spines of volunteers.  Sweatshirt strings drew tight and scarves wove spirals around goosebumped necks.

Some volunteers avoided unfavorable conditions by making signs inside

As time tiptoed towards noon we began to see real transformations.  Light brown benches took on darker, earthier hues.  Rectangular raised beds shed their wood and cinderblock exteriors, reformed in the shapes of kidney beans and bordered with terra cotta tiles.  The chicken coop, once crooked and gapped, now stood straight and enclosed.

Lunch overtook cleanup time like the sun drifting above stormclouds, bringing joy and relief to all who gave their time and energy.  The spread provided by Langenstein's included a beautiful greens salad, a variety of finger sandwiches, orzo with shrimp and vegetables, and fresh strawberries for dessert.

Wind, rain and cold could not stop this Open Garden Day!  As always, the Dreamkeeper Garden owes a very special thanks to all volunteers, scholars, Dreamkeepers, and sponsors who made today possible.

A first grade LHA scholar braves the elements in purple flannel

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Planning a Healthy Snack!

It's that time of the school year again!  As the end of the quarter approaches we like to celebrate our time in the garden together with a healthy school-grown snack.  As preparation we spent this week learning about nutrition, focusing on the kinds and amounts of foods that make our bodies happy and healthy.

Our scholars learned that scientists have developed MyPlate, a special guide to help us understand different food groups and how much of each we should eat as part of a healthy meal.  Scholars shared their favorite foods and gave examples from each of the five groups such as strawberries for fruit, broccoli for vegetables, pasta for grains, crawfish for proteins, and cheese for dairy.

Some of our kindergarten scholars learned the words "proteins," "grains," and "dairy," for the first time.  We reinforced these words by playing that challenged scholars to group foods into different MyPlate categories.  Foods like bananas and carrots were easy to group, but some foods fit into more than one category such as pizza or red beans and rice!

1st grade shared stories about their favorite foods and identified some that we can grow in the garden and some that we cannot.  2nd grade scholars wrote out their favorite foods on sticky notes then made a MyPlate for the class by posting the stickies onto the board.  We compared our class's plate to the actual MyPlate and learned that we were eating more than enough vegetables, but that maybe we could use some more fruit!

3rd and 4th grade scholars examined the nutrition facts of several food containers to figure out the different nutrients that we get from each food group.  Scholars concluded that no single food group gives us everything we need, so we should eat a variety of foods to stay healthy.

 4th grade scholar examine the nutrition facts of different foods such as oatmeal, ketchup and peanut butter

At the end of each class scholars split up into groups to explore the garden and plan our healthy snack using our very own fruits and vegetables.  The most rewarding part of having a garden, after all, is getting to take a bite out of it!

1st grade scholars plan their healthy garden snack together!

Sunday, February 19, 2012

The Dreamkeeper Garden Gets a New Neighbor!

Change is in the air and on the ground at the Dreamkeeper Garden!  Just a few weeks ago at our last garden work day we built a chicken coop and added more lasagna layers to our space.  Not 10 days later the garden got a very special new neighbor: a beautiful and colorful new playground!

The playground was made possible through the generous help of KaBoom!, a national non-profit, "dedicated to saving play for America's children."  KaBoom! has built over 2000 playgrounds across the United States including more than 70 in New Orleans alone!

On the morning of Monday, February 6th over 200 volunteers gathered in the courtyard to split into different build teams for the different parts of the playground.  KaBoom! planned to finish construction before the end of the school day, an ambitious but exciting goal.

Within minutes volunteers were hard at work mixing concrete, attaching wood for benches, shoveling and transporting woodchip mulch, assembling different sections of playground, building a sandbox, leveling ground for a basketball court, and transplanting shrubs for a butterfly garden.

Volunteers painting a mural (L) and transporting concrete (R)

As the hours flew by the playground came slowly to life.  Soft mulch piled up around the feet of the tall black poles holding up red playground platforms.  Scattered two-by-fours gathered and grew into beautiful wooden benches and picnic tables.  A bare section of fence collected reds, greens, blues and yellows as it began to read "Dream it, Do it, Be it."  The white and many-traingled Superdome, fully assembled in record time, found its final resting place next to the seesaws.

Volunteers hard at work on different sections of the playground

With the deadline approaching all attention turned to the mulch.  A hill-shaped pile loomed just beyond the boundary fence, the last challenge to overcome for tiring volunteers.  Working with the camaraderie and rhythm of skilled musicians, the volunteers steadily shrank the pile to the ground as its contents filled the final gaps on the playground.

Right as the clock struck 2:30, we had done it!  We had built an entire playground in less than a day!  We celebrated our incredible accomplishment with a performance by the LHA Marching Band, followed by a ribbon cutting ceremony that included several elementary school scholars and community leaders.  The ribbon itself was assembled from thank-you cards from dozens of LHA students, a token of gratitude for the hard work and sacrifice of all who helped.

The LHA Marching Band performs (L) shortly before the ribbon-cutting ceremony (R)

The garden has a beautiful, shining, exciting new neighbor that we're so grateful for.  Every day after garden class scholars will now be able to enjoy a space designed and built especially for them.

Special thanks to all of our volunteers and especially to Verint Systems for their extremely generous donation to make our playground possible.
One of several new benches, before and after

The playground space before (L) and after (R)
A beautiful new mural and picnic table

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Winter Volunteer Work Day!

On Saturday, January 28th the Dreamkeeper Garden hosted its first volunteer work day of 2012!  Over 40 people sacrificed their Saturday mornings to get an early start at 9:00AM for more than four hours of hard work in and around the garden.  Volunteers included students from Tulane University, employees from the Hyatt Regency, folks from New Orleans Outreach, and even a recent LHA alumnus!

After a quick volunteer orientation in the courtyard everyone split up into teams and got right to work.  The first team started construction on a chicken coop that will occupy one of the far corners of the garden, just past some colorful fence paintings and next to the compost.  When it's done the coop will house six chickens that will bear eggs!

Two fourth-grade scholars who are looking forward to having chickens in the garden!

Most of our volunteers were put to work continuing to build lasagna layers using our special recipe for creating soil!  First, volunteers laid down cardboard to act as a weed barrier, followed by mulch to create a good walking surface and to add carbon.  Using blue string as a guide, volunteers then made rows using nitrogen-rich coffee grounds, and topped that off with a thick layer of horse stable sweepings.

Volunteers spread materials out to create our lasagna layers for building soil.

By early afternoon the lasagna layers were complete!  Raised rows of light-brown stable sweepings alternated with darker brown mulch pathways to create our future growing space for the Dreamkeeper Garden.  With diligent watering our lasagna layers will break down into beautiful garden soil in just a few short months, and by next school year we'll have 700 more linear feet of growing space!

Lasagna layers, shortly after completion

The Dreamkeeper Garden is growing and transforming right before our eyes!  By this time next year we'll be harvesting a huge winter crop of leafy greens, herbs and flowers and plucking fresh, local and delicious eggs from our chicken coop.

We want to give a big LHA-style shout out for all the community, leadership, affection, success, sacrifice and enthusiasm demonstrated to us and to our garden by our wonderful volunteers.  We hope you'll come back to see the fruits (and vegetables!) of your labor!