Raised beds of collard greens, kale, and pomegranate trees sit parallel to herb beds blooming with mint and rosemary. Located a few feet away are the flower beds, looking a bit the worse for wear, but bright spots of pink and red sedums still peek out defiantly. “It doesn’t look perfect,” says Catherine McGuinn, “but it doesn’t need to be.”
Since founding the Charleston Horticultural Society’s Mobile Gardeners program in 2011, McGuinn has brought her expertise (she has her masters in horticultural therapy) to workshops in Hampton Park, the Church Creek Nursery, and Brittlebank Park. Most recently though, McGuinn has devoted her free time a few Fridays a month to the PACE program at Pattinson Academy. Located off of Bees Ferry Rd. Pattinson’s Academy for Comprehensive Education is a magnet school for children with “profound special needs.” McGuinn — who has used her degree working with juvenile offenders in Blacksburg Va., and students in a transitional school in Durham, N.C. — says that her goal with the PACE outdoor classroom is to make sure the teachers know how to interact with the plants and the kids in such a way that the garden gets used, no matter how much tearing, pulling, or displacing of plants this may take.
The small garden space, filled with the aforementioned veggies, herbs, and flowers, is a boon for both the students and the teachers. “We love using the outdoor classroom,” says teaching assistant Nicole Kaeser, “It’s great for the students because it’s all sensory encompassing. We try and go out there almost every day.”
PACE’s outdoor classroom was started in 2014 by The Council of Garden Clubs of Greater Charleston and The Exchange Club of Charleston; its official name is Lane’s Outdoor Classroom in honor of one of the charter school’s students to pass away. “It’s a really sentimental place for the teachers, too” says Kaeser. The garden’s raised beds are at levels conducive to assisting the students with their specific needs: some beds are tall enough for students with walkers to use the side of the bed to lean against/practice standing, while other beds are lower for students in wheelchairs to be able to bend over. The gardens activate all the senses; students can smell the rosemary, touch and grab the weeds that McGuinn purposefully lets grow, and bite into the bright red strawberries that, in the spring, are a student favorite.
PACE’s students range from ages five to 21, and they all learn in different ways says Kaeser, but they all are able to interact with the garden. One student in particular, says McGuinn, was struggling with motor skills involving grabbing, reaching, and twisting. The student’s occupational therapist had been working with him on these skills with no success until the student, bending over the raised bed in his wheelchair, was able to grab weeds, pull them out, twist around, and drop the weeds into a yard bag.
“He was really excited to be able to do something with purpose,” says McGuinn. Other students choose not to participate, and instead sit on the swinging bench next to the garden, just enjoying their time outside with their classmates. Their personalities emerge especially in this environment, as some use the water hose to shower people instead of plants, partaking in a simple, laughter-inducing activity.
PACE’s Principal Elaine Fort says that the kids “absolutely love it. It’s completely hands-on. The fact that they get to go outside and do an activity that for them feels normal — it’s inspiring to see.” The garden’s bounty is harvested for each child to take home and is also incorporated into cooking classes the students participate in. Recently, says Fort, a child’s mom was in the hospital, so the school harvested the collard greens and then went to the grocery as part of their community-based instruction, and got ingredients to make an entire meal, which they prepared and brought to the family. For Thanksgiving, the children make “harvest bags” in the large covered space next to the garden. “It’s a harvest party,” says McGuinn, “the kids bag swiss chard, kale, cabbages, herbs, and marigolds to take home. We set up tables and they practice skills by sorting their vegetables. The entire school participates.”
While McGuinn can only supervise classes a few times a month, the teachers make a point to visit the garden as often as possible. “They know they can text me whenever they have any questions,” says McGuinn. “And they know they can’t really hurt anything. At the end of the day, it’s for the kids. And I’m here to replant anything to make sure the garden is still a garden.”
Recently McGuinn says they planted some tomatoes and peppers. The pomegranate tree is starting to blossom, and the butterfly-friendly flowers are ready for the caterpillars to transform after filling up on the critter-friendly parsley and fennel.
“It’s a work in progress,” says McGuinn about the garden, “I just want the kids to be able to experience it.