Garden club helps student learning bloom

Maura Richard, Abigail Hansen and Cody Kahkonen point out strawberries growing in the student garden at Hillcrest Elementary School.  - Rebecca Olson/Whidbey News-Times
Maura Richard, Abigail Hansen and Cody Kahkonen point out strawberries growing in the student garden at Hillcrest Elementary School.
— image credit: Rebecca Olson/Whidbey News-Times

Hillcrest Elementary School students know how to get their hands dirty. With the help of Oak Harbor Garden Club members, they transformed a weedy section between buildings into a colorful array of flowers, herbs, trees and even a butterfly garden.

Patty VanDyke’s first-grade class is one of the participating first and second grade classes. Every Wednesday, garden club members, including the woman who started it all, Helene Valdez, club president, come to the school to help more than 50 students weed, plant and learn about gardening.

Last Wednesday, Valdez, Carol Henry and Carolyn Sayles, club members, took small groups of students to work in the garden. The children’s enthusiasm was obvious as they bounced from bed to bed, pointing out weeds and naming plants. Some students eagerly watered the butterfly garden, a bed with plants specifically meant to nourish and attract butterflies, while others planted sunflower seeds, smiling as they got their hands dirty.

“It’ll affect them their whole life,” Valdez said of the experience.

Not only does gardening get the children outside but the Garden Club members intertwine science lessons with gardening.

As Lucas Duenas pulled up a weed, Valdez asked the students to name the parts of the plant. Enthusiastically, they pointed out the roots.

With another group, Valdez sat beside the herb garden and pulled off leaves for the students to smell to see if they recognized common scents like rosemary and parsley. She also pointed out mushrooms, which need to be removed from the garden, and taught them to use a shovel and never their hands because the mushrooms may be poisonous.

They also created a compost pile for weeds and other plant matter to teach students healthy environmental practices.

The gardening project meaningfully assists with classroom learning. VanDyke listed the curricula it coincides with.

“We’re integrating science, social skills, turn-taking and working with the community,” VanDyke said, adding that they’re also using pattern skills learned in math to paint flowers on a wall.

Last year, some students were afraid to get their hands dirty and some had never even touched dirt before, VanDyke said.

“We thought, ‘OK, we’re doing the right thing,’” VanDyke said.

The students certainly seemed to think so as they kneeled in the dirt to yank out weeds and asked Valdez questions, responding well to her upbeat, open attitude and encouragement. Enthusiasm and smiles were everywhere as the students put their hearts into learning and creating.

“They’re going to be higher than us!” Alyssa Warren-La Quet exclaimed after planting sunflower seeds.

Rhiannon Kleppang pointed out the cherry design on her shirt.

“I wear a lot of the stuff we plant,” Kleppang said.

Gardening is also a project families can work on together at home, Valdez said.

“I like to plant things,” Casey Cabigting said as she embedded sunflower seeds in the soil. She said her favorite flowers are roses. At home, she’s growing red, yellow and pink roses and her dad also planted cherry trees.

Valdez’s grandma introduced her to gardening at that age.

“This was her heart’s desire,” Henry said of Valdez’s work to get the garden started.

Valdez volunteered in VanDyke’s classroom last year. When VanDyke and Valdez decided to start the garden project, Valdez got into it right away. Her son brought the dirt, and contributions from Home Depot, the Greenhouse Florist and Nursery, the Parent-Teacher Association and the Oak Harbor Garden Club got the project rolling.

The teachers, however, helped the most, Valdez said. Without their support and time, the project wouldn’t be possible.

The first year, the only plant that grew was peas. But this year, the garden is ablaze with colorful flowers and greenery, a teepee for beans to climb and a rainbow garden featuring flowers in every color of the rainbow.

“Now we’re going gung-ho,” Valdez said. Garden club members will put in a watering system to keep the garden thriving during the summer. They’ve committed to the project for three years and hope to continue it for longer.

As the trio waited for the next group of students to arrive, they were all smiles despite the whirlwind of students and activities.

“The kids and us are all learning and that’s what gardening is about,” Valdez said.


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