Thursday, October 17, 2013

Dreamkeeper Garden: The Autumn Update

Is it really fall break already?

It seems like these first few months of the school year have flown right past us! Since August our garden and scholars have grown so much, and we have plenty of stories to share as the weather cools down into Autumn:

The biggest addition to the Dreamkeeper garden has been our new goats! Through a lot of hard work by administrators and garden staff our garden is now home to a full grown female Nigerian Dwarf (we call her Mama Goat), her yet-to-be-named kid (who we birthed at school!), and an African Pygmy kid from a farm across Lake Pontchartrain. As the year moves on we have some big plans for our new four legged friends, but for now they’ve been a welcome addition for scholars and dreamkeepers alike.

Mama goat and her baby

New friends enjoying some pallet play-time
We also celebrated our annual Watermelon Day. All 700+ scholars at Langston Hughes Academy got to try fresh watermelon from a farm in Mississippi. With sticky hands and juicy smiles our scholars and dreamkeepers devoured fruit after fruit, bringing to life the immortal words of Mark Twain – “When one has tasted watermelon, he knows what the angels eat.”

"I bet I can eat more watermelon than you, Mr. Durham!"
Our classes have covered a lot of material in these three short months. Our kindergarteners have learned all about their senses and cherish every moment they get to spend outside. First and second graders have learned all about the different plants and animals in our garden, even getting to design their own insects! The budding scientists in third and fourth grade have used the garden as their lab, where we’ve observed and recorded plant growth and designed and built our own solar ovens.
Who dat say dey gonna water dem plants!
In middle school, our scholars elect to take garden. 5th and 6th graders have taken on a lot over the past few months. We’ve conquered our fear of bees and hot peppers (we even learned about capsaicin, the fiery chemical in peppers), renewed our partnership with Dillard University, and bolstered our cooking skills on a weekly basis. 7th and 8th graders have truly become stewards of our outdoor space. They’ve learned about human impact on the environment, and are gearing up for their long awaited return to the farmer’s market.

Curried okra and tomatoes taste even better when eaten off a banana leaf

We’re moving into fall now, and most mornings there’s a noticeable chill in the air. But with that chill comes the excitement of what’s to come: the thriving of our new goat family, brassica (kale, broccoli, cabbage) coming back to our garden, and, most importantly, the  prospect of pumpkins!
1st grade scholars putting together a bouquet for their teacher

Friday, April 5, 2013

Broadening our Reach

In November, we flipped the switch.  Moments later, a soft hiss.  Then, a hundred tiny sparkles of fresh water.  Finally our drip irrigation system was finished, bringing water to the production rows.  It was time to plant.

In the four months since that day, the rows have enjoyed a hugely successful first season.  All winter long we've had loads of cabbages, collards, mustards, kale, dill, and onions to harvest; more than we knew what to do with.

Production rows, thriving mid-season
We sautéed mustard greens in class, gave cabbages away to LHA staff, and let scholars harvest after school.  Still, the greens just kept coming.

Fortunately we had a plan.  Since the start of the school year, we've wanted to create a Family Supported Agriculture (FSA) program.  In this program, families would periodically receive a fresh bag of produce from our garden, grown and harvested by LHA scholars.

Scholars prepare bags for the FSA
The FSA has been an opportunity for our middle schoolers to take more ownership over the garden.  Our morning class got to custom-design the bags, and each Friday they harvest part of what goes home.  Our afternoon class harvests the rest, places it in the bags, then delivers it to scholars to take home.

Middle school scholars celebrate another great harvest!
Even with the FSA, we still had more than enough produce to go around.  So we contacted the Marketplace at Armstrong Park and set up a partnership to sell our produce at their weekly farmer's market.  Now, our afternoon class has become a market-based course where scholars learn business ethics and logistics and take food to market every Thursday afternoon.  In our first two weeks, we made a combined $137 in sales!

Scholars practice the art of the marketing
The market and FSA programs have helped our scholars understand how gardening can have a positive impact on our school community and beyond.  Each of us has the power to grow and share foods that contribute to healthy lifestyles for ourselves, our families, and the broader community.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Young Scientists

"I found a clue!" said Chelsea, holding up a thumb-sized white seashell.  "I wonder if this soil came from the ocean."

This week Chelsea and her classmates are developing their skills as scientists.  Over the past few weeks they've learned the nitty-gritty about soil composition.  First we made soil smoothies where each ingredient represented a different soil component: Oranges for sand, strawberries for silt, blueberries for clay, and bananas for organic matter.  Next we explored different soils in the garden to determine the primary components of several samples.  Scholars learned that darker soils have more organic matter, smoother soils have more clay, and grittier soils have more sand.

Soil scientists hard at work
This week we're exploring soil's origins.  We learned that 10,000 years ago Southern Louisiana was all open water, with no land in sight.  Over several millennia soil eroded into the Mississippi River, traveling down its length before being deposited right here.  In other words, all of the soil around us is from somewhere else!

That's especially true of our garden, where most of our soil has only been around since LHA's renovation.  Our clay foundation was shipped in, while the soil we use for growing was either delivered or created right here through composting or lasagna layering.

Using a trowel and their senses of sight, smell and touch, third grade scholars searched for evidence and made inferences about our soil's origins.  Other than the shells, scholars also noticed horse manure, inferring that some of our soil comes from a farm or stables.

Scholars share observations and inferences
This year all of our K-3 classes parallel each grade's science and social studies curriculum.  Our goal is for scholars to make relevant and meaningful connections with classroom content during their time in the garden.

1st grade scholars searching for red wiggler worms
Scholars typically learn something in the classroom and then experience it hands-on in the garden the following week.  Other lessons have included using magnifying glasses to see the world from an ant's perspective, running a simple machines relay race as an experiment, and melting s'mores in a pizza-box solar oven to learn about heat absorption.  Yum!

Solar Oven S'mores!

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Citrus Field Trip

Winter in the garden is a leafy-green time in the Dreamkeeper garden.  Our production rows are finally in use and they're filled with all sorts of brassicas (cabbage, mustards, collards broccoli, brussel sprouts) and root vegetables (carrots, beets, radishes), almost all of which produce large, edible greens and no fruit.

Luckily, winter in Louisiana is like a giant citrus party.  Markets fill with bright-colored mesh bags of local oranges and satsumas as farmers truck in their crops from all around the southern part of the state.

Our scholars take citrus season a step further.  For the second year in a row, LHA's 4th grade scholars got to take a field trip to a local citrus farm.

We arrived at Isabelle's Citrus Farm, located just along the levee in Belle Chase, on the West Bank in Plaquemines Parish.  Farmer Isabelle, who owns and manages the farm, greeted us warmly and began the grand citrus tour.

Farmer Isabelle, giving scholars a tour
The first thing scholars noticed was the moat around her house, a ring of water covered with a thin layer of a strange green material.

"Algae!"  Farmer Isabelle explained.  "We harvest the algae and use it as an organic fertilizer for our citrus trees."

Algae! (left)
"Organic?" Wondered some scholars, "What do you mean by that?"

"Organic means I don't use any toxic or dangerous chemicals on my farm.  Our fruit is so safe that you can even eat the skin."

Next we wandered through her groves of grapefruits, satsumas, oranges, and tangelos.  Tangelos!  We'd never seen such a big citruses!

Finally, we got a taste for ourselves.  Each scholar got to eat a satsuma, a navel orange, or a grapefruit.  Scholars peeled them by hand, made compost piles out of the skins, and shared so that everyone got to try each variety.

The tastiest part of our field trip.
We thanked Farmer Isabelle and loaded over 100 pounds of citrus onto the buses to share with the rest of LHA scholars.  That Friday everybody at school got a taste, too!

~100 pounds of citrus, ~70 pound scholar
Farmer Isabelle counts herself lucky among citrus farmers.  Back in September, the storm surge from Hurricane Isaac topped the levee system in Plaquemines Parish, causing catastrophic damage to this year's citrus crop.  Many farmers lost 75% or more of their crop, and the season is expected to end prematurely.

Aspiring citrus farmers?
Some farms may take years to fully recover, while others may be forced to close.  But there's hope.  If our scholars are any indication, it doesn't look like Louisiana citrus will lose its appeal anytime soon!