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Sowing Circle

The Gardening Club at L.A.'s Pilgrim School Gives Kids a Chance to Get Their Hands Dirty

May 11, 2003|Susan Heeger

Growing up in a city means never having to milk cows, pick corn or sweep the barn when you'd rather be skating. But there are disadvantages, too. You might think bread grows in a package, or question the point of a worm's existence. And if you knew what fun it was, you might want to turn kitchen scraps into compost or tend your own geranium. Which is why Pilgrim, an ecumenical K-through-12 private school in L.A.'s Wilshire Center district, started a gardening club last year that has raised wheat, farmed worms and vegetables and developed a peaceful coexistence with pigeons, who also relish the urban harvest.

The club is the brainchild of Melinda Taylor, a Pilgrim parent and landscape designer who created the school's free-flowing, garden-rich playground, edged with beds and planter boxes. It encourages students to follow their own interests. Members, who could be any age but are mostly first through fourth graders, decide what they want to plant, based largely on what they want to eat. During weekly after-school meetings, students water, check crops, bug hunt and discuss seasonal cycles with faculty advisor Lorne Platt, a middle-school science teacher. Sometimes they just talk.

''Everyone has a story,'' says Taylor, who, with her design associate, Erik Rieder, attends many of these meetings. ''Someone says, 'We eat bok choy at my house,' and someone else, 'What's bok choy?' They learn a lot about each other.''

They also learn how a seed planted in rich, organic soil becomes a grassy plant with gold plumes. Snipped and danced on (with clean shoes), tossed high above a linen sheet, these in turn become wheat that, with the children's help, becomes bread in the school kitchen. ''Wheat was a huge hit last year,'' Rieder says. ''Though pigeons took most of it, we had enough for two loaves, and everybody got a piece.''

To ensure a bigger haul this fall, Rieder and Taylor covered plants with netting once seed heads began to form. On harvest day, some four months after last August's planting, several students shooed birds away while others clipped wheat in preparation for the threshing. ''There's a lot of teamwork involved and direct learning about natural processes,'' Platt says.

In addition to harvesting wheat this year, the club started a worm-growing operation, a container water garden and a compost program on the roof of a school building. According to Platt, understanding how the world works requires seeing connections among its parts. For example, students might feed worms to their fish, fertilize plants with fish emulsion and use plant scraps to make compost, which becomes food for the worms. ''We plan to work this into our science curriculum,'' says Platt, ''studying plant growth, for instance, in relation to different conditions, and later studying plant structure under microscopes. By involving young students in the club, we can build on their enthusiasm as they get older.''

On club days, enthusiasm runs high, not just with club members but among other students, who surround the concrete planters when there's work to do. Especially picking.

''Once you pick it, it doesn't grow anymore,'' offers Alec Palchikoff, a chatty first grader who joined the club in kindergarten. ''But you can grow plants and not pick them.''

Instead, as fourth grader Breanna Martin says, ''You can watch them and touch them. I love the feeling of flower petals and scratchy wheat. I think I'll be a gardener all my life.''

Fellow fourth grader Phineas Taylor-Webb, Taylor's son, is on the same path. And having helped his mother design the playground, he has a special interest in the club's success. ''At first, kids were scared of getting dirty," he says. "Now they know that it's OK. It's even more fun when you get dirty.''

Though club activities are limited by gardeners' ages and attention spans, all agree that vegetables should follow wheat in the main planters while fragrant herbs grow nearby.

''They learn with their hands and follow their noses,'' Rieder says. ''They get completely absorbed by things that aren't part of what we're doing--like ants. When we water and ants swarm, that's it. The subject is ant observation!''

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Resource Guide

Melinda Taylor Garden Design, Los Feliz, (323) 666-9181.

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