The second-grade class starts to harvest kohlrabi plants from one of the garden’s many rows on Oct. 18. According to garden coordinator Michael Covey, the second graders grew the kohlrabi this fall, and after harvesting the plants, they worked together to cook and eat them. (Photo by Jacqueline Chao)
Staff, volunteers integrate farm-to-fork activities into class time
Filled with either students eating lunch, classes doing outdoor activities or student photographers observing different insects, Country Day’s own Garden of Eden is always busy.
But in order to keep it a clean, functioning space, many people contribute their time and energy – some even as young as 5 years old.
The official “garden coordinator” is former teacher Michael Covey. He retired from teaching high school chemistry at Country Day in 2005 and saw that the garden “needed a lot of tending because the teachers and students involved couldn’t keep up (with the work),” he said.
And so, Covey decided to start volunteering at the school garden around 2008.
At that time, the garden consisted of only 10 to 20 gardening beds with no main caretaker, according to Covey.
But now it has expanded to include a vegetable garden, a strawberry patch, a pumpkin patch, a native plant habitat, a variety of fruit trees (apple, pomegranate, plum and olive) and a greenhouse.
There’s also a composting area, “where harvested plants are placed so that the nutrients can be reused,” Covey said.
Covey, who was later hired as a part-time employee of the school, is joined by volunteers from the school community.
Peggy Lindsay, freshman Jordan’s grandmother, tends to Kathy’s Corner, a flower garden commemorating former middle school teacher Kathy Russell-Fernandez.
Theo Kaufman, ’18, and senior Lia Kaufman’s mother, Christina, has volunteered at the garden for about seven years, she said.
“(She) takes care of pretty much everything,” Covey said.
A lot of methods and techniques used in the garden are because of Covey’s volunteer work at Soil Born Farms, a Sacramento-based farm dedicated to growing organic food, educating youth about farming and providing greater access to produce.
For instance, Covey’s covered the cauliflower and broccoli plants in the garden with large, white sheets called frost covers. However, instead of being used for frost, these sheets are used for pest control, Covey said.
“We have a (certain species of) moth that comes out here and lays eggs on those plants,” Covey said. “The eggs turn into caterpillars, (which have) voracious little appetites.”
Another technique Covey learned from his time at Soil Born Farms is planting cover crop on rows that aren’t being used. Cover crop, according to Covey, helps bring nitrogen into the soil, thus helping future plant growth.
Covey also assists the middle school Farm-to-Fork elective, taught by middle school science teacher Aleitha Burns.
“They are the main workforce besides me and volunteers,” he said. “They do a lot of tending to the beds and help make seasonal transitions between plants.”
But even with all the work done by the Farm-to-Fork elective, Covey and volunteers have a constant stream of work to do.
Covey works in the garden an average of 10 hours a week, he said, but may spend up to 25 hours a week during the late summer to early fall, late winter to early spring and late spring to early summer.
“There’s about five to six months in the year when I put in a lot of time, and the other months, things are growing happily on their own or growing very slowly and need a lot less work,” he said.
On top of tending to the garden – which “includes a lot of weeding” – he works with lower school teachers to plan activities in the garden for their classes.
“For most of the lower school classes, that means sowing seeds, transplanting plants (and) a little bit of weeding, harvesting and eating,” he said.
And by allowing these students to work in the garden, Covey said, students have a chance to try new foods while gaining an understanding as to where food comes from.
Christina agreed, citing that as one of the reasons she started to volunteer at the garden.
“(The garden) has been essential to teaching students about food and where it comes from,” she said.
“And when I say ‘food,’ I mean real, authentic, ground-grown food – sans chemicals.”
On top of that, around a third of the rows in the garden are growing crops to be donated to the River City Food Bank, Covey said.
“Last year, we donated about 500 pounds of fresh produce,” he said.
That year, the fourth grade also started donating part of their harvest, according to fourth-grade teacher Amanda Ashdown.
“And this year we had a great discussion with the students, and we opened their eyes up to the purpose of the garden,” Ashdown said.
Pamela Livesey, the other fourth-grade teacher, added that Covey visited the class and gave a presentation about the garden and the Food Bank.
“As we were talking, the class came up with the idea that 90 percent (of the harvest) goes to the Food Bank, and the rest stays with us so we can have a taste,” Livesey said.
And by donating to the Food Bank, Livesey and Ashdown said the students are able to learn more about the Food Bank as well as give back to the community.
On top of donating to the Food Bank, students are able to learn to work together and see “the payoffs of hard work and diligence,” Ashdown said.
“For our kids, (the growth) magically happens – they don’t tend to the plants like the Farm-to-Fork elective, (Covey) or Christina do,” Ashdown said.
“But Michael is very good about explaining the whole process to them.”
Christina added that another benefit of the garden is its ability to promote healthy eating.
“We all know processed foods are convenient and super easy to acquire, but society suffers from the unhealthfulness these ‘on-the-go’ foods provide,” she said.
“We need to educate and inform our younger generations of the importance of healthy foods versus convenient foods.”
The collaboration between the garden and students wouldn’t have been possible without Covey and other volunteers, Ashdown and Livesey said.
“We’re just super grateful for (Covey) and Christina,” Ashdown said. “They do all the hard work for us.”
Livesey agreed, citing all the time and energy Covey has spent working with students over the past eight years.
But the garden isn’t just a way for students to give back to the community. In fact, many classes do activities in the garden that tie directly into the curriculum.
For example, the sophomore English classes have done gardening activities in relation to the theme of “coming to California.”
Near the beginning of the school year, students researched different vegetables and how they arrived in Sacramento, according to sophomore Brian Chow.
Afterwards, the class went to the garden and planted beets, carrots, onions and other vegetables.
Similarly, last year, the fourth grade helped plant native California plants to go along with their study of California.
Lastly, in the third-grade classes, students plant the Three Sisters (squash, corn and beans), which ties into their study of colonial American life.
The garden is also, as Covey said, a “place of respite.”
“Some high schoolers come out here to relax or do homework,” he said.
“Eighth graders eat lunch out here, and some classes will come out here to do activities or do something outside the four walls of a classroom.”
Because Covey used to teach high school chemistry, he said he didn’t have a chance to work with younger students until now.
“I enjoy working with lower school students,” he said. “They are very enthusiastic every time they’re in the garden. Often if I walk into the class, they’ll ask, ‘Are we going to the garden?’
“I have the best job on campus. Everything I do is fun.”
—By Allison Zhang
Originally published in the Oct. 30 edition of the Octagon.