Have you wondered what’s “growing on” at Lamar Middle School?  If so, then take some time to visit Lamar’s edible gardens. The vegetable gardens are located near the intersection of Burnet Road and Romeria, near the Band Hall.  Currently, there are three fruit trees and 15 raised beds growing everything from A (for Asparagus) to Z (for Zucchini).

As you may know, the field surrounding Lamar’s track has plenty of sun to offer and also plenty of grass.  But who wants to eat Bermuda grass, so why not use the empty space to grow food?  In June of 2011, a group of parents and teachers installed the first four garden beds.  A parent initiative grant from Texas Action for Healthy Kids provided the “seed” money for this project.

During the 2011-2012 school year, approximately 15 students participated in the garden club known as GIY club (Grow It Yourself Club).  Every Thursday after school, students worked out in the garden: they grew herbs, broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, and artichokes during the fall, and in the spring they planted tomatoes, potatoes, eggplants, peppers, asparagus, watermelon, cantaloupe, sweet potatoes, and squash.  In December 2011, students helped to plant two trees, a red oak and a live oak, for Sustainable Neighborhoods.  The live oak and red oak are doing well so far!  Students also learned about composting and vermicomposting, and went on a field trip to 5-Mile Farms.

This school year, students in several culinary arts classes (grades 6, 7, and 8) learned about growing seasonal produce by gardening organically and sustainably.  These students got to eat the watermelons that had been growing all summer, too!  They also planted a new fall garden and used the fresh produce (lots of spinach, lettuce, and herbs) for cooking.  Students met with the cafeteria manager, Ms. Tina Castillo, to learn about Farm to School, a program managed by AISD and the Sustainable Food Center.  Ms. Castillo explained to students that she can now order some of the fresh produce served at lunch from local farmers; these items would be marked “local” in the serving line.  She showed students a sample list and asked them to be “ambassadors” for the program, by encouraging their friends to try out a new vegetable, especially if marked “local.”  Owners of one of these local farms, Green Gate Farms, visited Lamar during lunch in November.  They brought pictures of their farm and some special visitors: two baby pigs of a rare heritage breed.

Teachers at Lamar can use the garden as a resource to reinforce concepts learned in the classroom. For example, students study ecosystems, insects and their lifecycles in science during middle school.  In the garden students observed ladybugs and lacewings in all lifecycle stages. They also learned about how these insects fit into the garden ecosystem.  Students measured the garden beds into square feet with string and calculated perimeter, area, and volume.  Art students studied the British sculptor and environmentalist Andy Goldsworthy, who makes impermanent art sculptures from objects found in nature such as flower petals, branches, and stones.  The art students paid a visit to the garden to make their own sculptures from mulch, okra seed pods, small branches, and flowers.  During club time, students had a great time discovering the sculptures made by the art students in the garden. In sixth grade, students read Seedfolks, a book about how the members of a diverse urban neighborhood transform an abandoned lot into a community garden.  Each chapter features a different fruit or vegetable and character.  Many of these plants are growing in the Lamar school garden for students to observe firsthand.  The garden is a teaching resource for all subject areas taught at school.

Students also participated in Clean Creek Campus and Generation Zero Waste, two educational outreach programs managed by Keep Austin Beautiful and City of Austin’s Watershed Protection Department.  During Clean Creek Campus, students learned how to protect their watersheds when gardening by opting for compost instead of chemical fertilizers and by planting native and adapted plants.  During the final lesson students built three raised beds in the garden, added soil, and planted a garden.  The students also planted native and adapted plants like bluebonnets, black foot daisies, and four nerve daisies in a garden bed made from salvaged fence pickets.  During Generation Zero Waste lessons, students are learning about how landfills are made, just where and how our trash impacts the environment, and what people can do to minimize these impacts.

These environmental initiatives are not limited to the classrooms.  Lamar and Small Middle School are the first two middle schools in AISD to provide school-wide composting in the cafeteria during lunch.  Texas Disposal Systems has provided a special dumpster where all food and paper products are diverted from the landfill to be composted at their facility.  Even plastic bags and chip bags are collected in the lunchroom and taken to HEB for recycling.  In fact, this year Lamar won Keep Austin Beautiful’s Longhorn Recycle Roundup for its efforts (http://www.keepaustinbeautiful.org/LRR2012Winners). The school plans to incorporate even more green initiatives on its campus, including the installation of two 1000 gallon rain collection tank, as well as further improvements in the garden such as drip irrigation and a new storage shed.

Dedicated volunteers have made these environmental policies and improvements possible at Lamar.  Over the last two years, the Safe Routes to Schools Committee was responsible for the transportation improvements, new bike racks in the front and back of the school, and other initiatives to encourage walking and biking to school. This year, these volunteers continued the good work as the Sustainability Committee.  Activities this year included facilitation of recycling and composting at Lamar Fest, consultation on biking and walking issues, donation of funds and coordination with Lamar and AISD to install the 1000 gallon tanks for rain water collection, and more.  To continue to implement and coordinate these environmental improvements, Lamar hopes to have an official PTA committee called the Green Team next year.

Lamar is thankful to Action for Healthy Kids, the Lamar PTA, and Keep Austin Beautiful for the financial support to start the edible gardens.  Additionally, Organics by Gosh and Geo Growers have donated yards of soil and compost.  Shoal Creek Nursery provides a generous discount to Lamar for garden plants and supplies.  Lowe’s Toolbox for Education has awarded Lamar Middle School a grant of $4,300 to fund improvements at Lamar’s Edible Gardens.  Improvements planned are drip irrigation, an onsite storage shed, tools, and new raised beds.  Lamar would like to thank Eric and Lisa Lindqvist for their donation to purchase the rainwater collection tanks in memory of Eric’s parents, Patricia and Ingvar Lindqvist.  These environmental initiatives would not be possible without the support of the school faculty, staff, and administration, the community, local businesses, and non-profits who are dedicated to the overall health of the environment and the students at Lamar.  Just like our students, we are going to keep on growing!