Students Grow through Gardening

A local schoolyard garden offers excitement and lessons about where food comes from.

Story by Lauren Rutherford

Treasure hunting takes on a different meaning at Notre Dame de Sion School: The discovery involves getting your hands dirty, and the loot is a plate of steaming hot sweet potato fries.

This treasure is buried in the school’s garden, Sion Garden. Housed on the school grounds, the vegetarian’s paradise is home to lettuce, tomatoes, Brussels sprouts, kale and, of course, sweet potatoes this season. It has 24 raised beds for vegetables and fruits as well as 16 pear and apple trees and four cherry trees. Sion Garden is a part of the Schoolyard Gardens program, which supports 200 gardens citywide with the help of the Kansas City Community Gardens.

Classes ranging from Pre-K through fifth grade visit the garden daily to plant, weed and harvest. Then what’s sowed gets turned into a tasty treat. Annie Riggs, the lower school division head at Sion, says the project was established in 2010 on the suggestion of a parent, and the garden’s impact has been plentiful.

“The kids love it,” Riggs says. “They love to get outside, and they love to watch their plants grow and get their hands in the dirt.”

Garden coordinator Nicole Routh works with Riggs, teachers and students to make it all happen. This year, the students wanted to plant purple and white vegetables and fruits to honor their school colors. Routh scoured gardening resources and returned with vegetables you’d ever think could be purple—carrots, basil, peppers and more

The students’ role in the garden—from planning to plate—makes them more apt to taste what they grow. Riggs says the students were hesitant to try peas, but when they learned they could eat them right off the bush, excitement ensued. Students will approach Chef Jackie, Sion’s chef, with a recipe to make with the vegetables they’re growing. Sometimes the more unusual the vegetable—purple carrots, for example—the better.

“If there’s something weird about it, they get really excited and really want to try it,” Routh says.

But the garden’s benefits extend beyond encouraging students to try new foods; it builds self-confidence and teaches them to have pride in their work.

Riggs likes to tell a story about one class that planted several beds of corn and wanted to make cornbread muffins. They planted one bed of corn, and it didn’t work out. The class learned from their failure and planted multiple beds the next year. After harvesting the corn, they ground it up, made the muffins and shared them with the school. Riggs says the kids’ enthusiasm about sharing a product they’d seen through from kernel to baked good is the most rewarding part of Sion Garden.

The kids are excited about the growing process, too. Routh says she sees kids tending to their plants one moment and then jumping around and screaming about how big their broccoli has become the next. The students get to see science come to life, and for Routh, watching the kids’ curiosity as they make conclusions about nature is the most rewarding part.

“They learn how to take care of things,” she says. “They learn cooperation. They learn about cause and effect. They also get a much deeper sense of the value of food.”