WRITTEN BY Laura Thompson
On a cloudless day in April, Kathleen Smith is moving 10-pound bags of soil and wrangling chicken wire alongside a school playground. As Brookstone Schools’ “gardener-in-chief,” Smith happily undertakes this effort, unfazed by the unseasonably warm spring weather, as she organizes planting for the new crop. Preparing a garden for planting or getting ready to teach no less than 50 schoolchildren would be challenging for most, but Smith’s excitement and enthusiasm for sharing the wonders of the garden are infectious.
“Can anyone explain to me what the phrase ‘cool as a cucumber’ means?” Smith asks the first group of curious third graders.
Hands shoot into the air and various definitions are offered. As she places tiny seeds in the hands of these young gardeners, Smith uses this question to engage Brookstone’s students on what gives a cucumber its flavor, how the produce will grow on vines over the next couple months, and the nutritional value of the produce they are planting. A simple question provides these young learners a bevy of information.
While she doesn’t consider herself as a gardener, Smith has become the architect of the gardening curriculum, volunteer organizer and resident gardener for Brookstone Schools’ gardens for almost 10 years. Joining as a volunteer with St. Patrick’s Elementary School in 2010, Smith was part of group of parents and students that teamed up with Brookstone Schools to create a community garden at Brookstone’s first location off Westinghouse Boulevard. Friendship and valuable learning opportunities inside and outside of the classroom were the products of the first garden.
The initial, robust partnership between St. Patrick’s School and Brookstone Schools has been the product of thoughtful cultivation. After a successful first year of partnering, from which friendships blossomed between St. Patrick’s and Brookstone students, St. Patrick’s PTO received a “Front Porch” grant from The Foundation For The Carolinas to transport students from one school to the other.
The partnership grew—literally and figuratively—when Brookstone moved to its second location. The Amay James Avenue school location soon became home to 16 four-by-six foot raised gardening beds, which produced copious amounts of sweet potatoes, tomatoes and peppers.
“We have had wonderful community partners engaged with us,” adds Smith. “Friendship Gardens and Friendship Trays joined in, and meteorologists visited to teach the kids about how weather affects the crops. We’ve had composting experts, butterfly and insect specialists from Discovery Place, and a chef from the Johnson & Wales culinary program who helped us create recipes for incorporating the produce into meals.”
Each season a new crop is planted—sweet potatoes in the fall, root vegetables in the winter and vine vegetables in the spring. Smith also introduced microgreens, planting that is attainable whether you have a garden or just a pot and a windowsill.
“We hope to show the students that they can grow vegetables virtually anywhere, from tiny—and inexpensive—seeds,” says Smith. “The students learn that tiny seeds grow into microgreens like lettuce that are healthy additions to their diet.”
Now located in Uptown Charlotte, Brookstone is making use of First Baptist Church’s Sunday School classrooms. From Monday to Friday, 180 students in grades one through five learn in the classrooms, enjoy the playground, and utilize green space for two raised beds and a terraced garden.
The continued partnership continues to yield valuable learning experiences. Students readily dig in and get their hands dirty, and eagerly enjoy the products of their work.
“I loved the kale chips,” said Biak, a third-grade gardener. “I had never tried kale, or sweet potatoes, until we grew them in the garden here at school.”
Zach, a classmate, chimed in, “I love the carrots. We all took some home and my mom made them for dinner,” he said. “My brother and I had never tried carrots and we really liked them.”
Brookstone Schools’ ethos is “sowing seeds of wisdom.” For close to 10 years, Kathleen Smith and her team of dedicated volunteers have done just that.
For more information about the volunteer program at Brookstone Schools, visit brookstoneschools.org