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Planting Seeds of Learning : Student gardens reap a harvest of benefits. They beautify schoolyards, serve as teaching tools and bring communities together.

August 26, 1994|MARYANN HAMMERS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Maryann Hammers writes regularly for The Times

"Oh, gosh!" Krystal Lerner, 10, wailed. "This is dying!" She caressed the wilted leaves of a fading flower. "It's pretty dry. Oh, wait! I spotted a green part!"

Awkwardly maneuvering a watering can, she sprinkled the plant. "If we give it water and keep it in shape," she explained, "maybe it will live."

Along with her schoolmates at Woodlake Elementary School in Woodland Hills, Krystal, a fourth-grader, is tending the Woodlake-Community Children's Garden, planted last spring with the support of local businesses, residents and parents. The garden, which replaced a long-ignored front lawn, is composed of several distinct sections, each marked by a sign: "Desert," "Mediterranean," "Australia," "Herb Garden," "Grassy Gulch," "Succulent Ground Cover" and "Butterfly Hill."

A California native plant area, featuring wildflowers and hummingbird-attracting blossoms, is planned for fall.

In all, the rectangular garden is filled with more than 150 drought-tolerant, low-maintenance, "kid-friendly" (that is, nontoxic, thorn-less and fun) plants, with an emphasis on flowering perennials and ornamental grasses.

A few blocks away at Welby Way Elementary School in West Hills, students, parents and teachers are fussing over their own flower and vegetable garden. The "Life Lab," as the fenced-in square of land is called, is rumored to have once corralled a pony and was later abandoned to weeds.

Today, the old weed patch bursts with color. Each class has its own plot with the students' choice of flowers or vegetables. Children who want fresh-picked bouquets in their classrooms plant sweet peas, petunias, marigolds, zinnias, sunflowers, snapdragons and wildflowers, while those who prefer to feast on the fruits (and vegetables) of their labor grow strawberries, tomatoes, squash, radishes, cucumbers, Brussels sprouts, lettuce and corn.

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"The students had no concept of where vegetables come from," said Welby Way fifth-grade teacher Dianne Rosen. "They see them on a shelf in a grocery store or in a box in the freezer. One student asked, 'You mean you can grow potatoes?' "

Despite their differences in flora and appearance, the Woodlake and Welby Way gardens achieve many of the same goals. They beautify schoolyards, serve as teaching tools and bring communities together.

"A children's garden is educational," said parent Lynette Mathis, who spearheaded the Woodlake effort. "It is fun. It is beautiful. It gets the kids excited about the environment. It is the perfect vehicle for community involvement. And it is a model of the exciting things that happen when kids get out of the classroom to do hands-on learning."

Mathis, who as a child attended Woodlake, said the idea for a garden came to her when she realized the school looked just as boring as she remembered. "I wanted to transform the plain and institutional facade into something beautiful," she said. "The school needed a face lift, and everyone could use a morale boost. A garden was something we could feel proud of and inspired by."

Mathis' proposal was embraced by parents, teachers and the community. Parents built bridges and bird baths. Local businesses donated supplies, plants and cash. Landscaping students at West Valley Occupational Center replaced the old, inefficient sprinklers with a new, water-saving irrigation system. And students--wielding brooms, hoes and kid-sized plastic wheelbarrows--dug in and planted.

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Everyone also pitched in for Welby Way's Life Lab. The school earned "seed money" for the project from a local mall. A teacher brought a wheelbarrow and a rototiller from her garage; local nurseries contributed manure, planter mix and flowers and a school secretary hauled the load in her pickup truck. Parents built compost bins, dug holes and helped plant.

"Teachers pull weeds after school as a nice stress-reliever," said Welby Principal Gigi Edler, "and it's wonderful how so many community members have come to water, offer advice or help monitor children."

Such gardens form the basis for a variety of hands-on science lessons, according to Woodlake teacher Nancy Firestein. "The children learn how plants grow from seeds, cuttings and bulbs," she said. "They learn about root systems. They learn how smog affects plants and how plants replenish oxygen."

Reading, writing and arithmetic assignments also stem from the gardens. Ecology has become a favorite topic in classroom discussions and essays. Art projects are based on garden finds. Spelling words come from plant names.

"The children really feel they are doing something vital and relevant to real life," Firestein said. "They have become very aware of the importance of the environment--and when children are involved in conserving the environment, they are not going to be the ones who destroy it."

Be a 'Gardening Angel'

You can help create a garden at your local elementary, middle or high school by volunteering as a "Gardening Angel" through the federally funded Common Ground program.

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