Imagine a world where children cease to argue over candy and sweets, instead begging for another handful of turnip greens. A glimmer of bright white cauliflower sparkles from behind shadowing green leaves, and their eyes light up like Augustus Gloop’s at the sight of Willy Wonka’s chocolate river. And unless you want a riot, don’t even mention that broccoli is in season.
That world exists, in the back corners and side yards of elementary schools, orphanages, and after-school centers throughout Charleston.
On a brisk but bright February afternoon, a group of children run excitedly out the library door at Murray LaSaine Elementary on James Island. Today is their weekly session with Darlena Goodwin, the executive director of the Charleston Area Children’s Garden Project. Tucked into a yard between two school buildings, a dozen-or-so beds of collard greens, spinach, and lettuce sit ripe for the picking. A raised bed of flowers, mostly pansies, awaits the butterflies that will soon emerge from their chrysalises with the spring.
“Pick from the bottom. Go underneath and look at the leaves. Separate them out,” says Goodwin, gently instructing a group of three girls harvesting leaves of lettuce. “If you leave a little bit, it’ll keep on growing.”
Another team of third graders works diligently to replace the plastic sheeting that’s peeling from the greenhouse. They’re rewarded with handfuls of tomato seeds, planted carefully with holes punched by fingers into small containers of moist soil.
Everything here was built by children, from the brightly painted pallets that form the sides of the compost bin to the pinwheels that turn amidst the Brussels sprouts. Goodwin and a small team of staff and volunteers do the legwork, but the stake each child has in the garden is visible in the pride they take at harvest time.
“Mmm,” says third grader Alaysha Hogan, stuffing her mouth with freshly picked spinach. Her classmate, Nyashia Aiken, strolls over with a “burrito” rolled from raw collard greens. Goodwin motions a few students over to another bed, and Nyashia realizes what they must be about to pick. “Don’t let anyone take my broccoli!” she shrieks.
It’s not your typical outburst from an eight-year-old. Then again, school’s out and these kids are still hanging around; no one mentions the TV or video games. It’s a parallel universe indeed, and it’s growing.
The Garden’s Roots
Fred Phillips planted his first garden at age 33, after the birth of his son. He wanted his child to understand the connection between the earth and his food, and growing their own seemed the best way to explain it. Realizing the power of a garden as a classroom, he began community gardens at his homes in Massachusetts and Washington, D.C., before moving to Charleston, where he founded the Children’s Garden Project eight years ago.
“You can teach anything in a garden — history, biology — anything that’s magic,” says Phillips, whose first Lowcountry garden project was at Crisis Ministries, a homeless shelter on Meeting Street. Today, the project includes 11 sites, reaching over 1,000 children each year. From the Jenkins Orphanage to the Florence Crittenton Home for pregnant teenagers, the locations are chosen based on need and potential impact. The schools (Murray LaSaine, Mt. Zion Elementary on Johns Island, and Sanders-Clyde Elementary downtown) all serve primarily lower income families.
One garden, a partnership between the Gadsden Green community and the Charleston Development Academy Charter School, sits in a small playground surrounded by the projects. But instead of being a dirty, litter-riddled, drug dealer-infested no man’s land that some people might imagine of a courtyard in the projects, it’s a friendly, open space.
Dressed in her standard work uniform of overalls, tie-dye, and a hand-knit toboggan, Goodwin walks through the neighborhood ringing a bell. Five minutes later, 25 children are gathered at the playground, grabbing shovels to turn over compost or examining the growth of the herbs in their “pizza garden.”
“Usually when I go into the projects, in the apartments there’s a can of Spam on the counter and a pot of white rice. I’ve seen that many times,” says Goodwin, who took over the reins from Phillips two years ago. She’s a perfect match — the former math and science teacher at Mt. Zion Elementary is passionate about nature, and that bubbles over into an uncanny ability to captivate kids.
“I met Fred when he started a garden at Mt. Zion, and just thought, wow, we can teach science and math in an outdoor classroom,”she says.
Not to mention fighting childhood hunger and obesity, encouraging overall health, instilling self-worth and responsibility, helping out the environment, and beautifying once-blighted wastelands.
“What’s a hypothesis?” asks Goodwin to the 40 second graders gathered in a classroom at Sanders Clyde.
A girl responds that the scientific method has something to do with farming.
And in this particular case, she’s right. Sanders Clyde is the Garden Project’s newest garden, and it’s being prominently constructed outside the school’s front door. It’s a new collaboration with Slow Food USA and Yo Art, and because the gardening takes place during school hours, the program carefully incorporates the state’s mandated curriculum. Slow Food brings in cooks and nutritionists, while Yo Art helps each child create a storybook chronicling the garden’s progress.
“We teach children to grow their own food, and they take home what they grow,” says Goodwin, who often sends students home with recipes or brings a crock pot and cooks up dinner on the spot. The harvests are split between the students, and everyone gets something. She fondly recalls a fourth grader who related the sharing of the harvest to the communal living of an African village that she’d learned about in social studies class.
The life analogies drawn from growing one’s own food are endless. At the Florence Crittenton home, Goodwin gets visibly excited as seven pregnant girls, all high school age or younger, compare a fresh ear of corn with the dried variety in a microwave popcorn bag. She then demonstrates how a dried ear of corn (the hybrid strain grown for popcorn) can be put in a paper bag and microwaved. The girls enjoy the truly fresh snack as Goodwin pulls at the silky strings inside the leaves of the corn, explaining how they use this feature to sexually pollinate and reproduce.
“Everything is just nature,” says one young girl.
Outside, the girls plant aloe. Goodwin explains the plant’s ability to soothe chapped baby bottoms and sore nipples. Nearby, herbs grow in a small box that will be used to make child-friendly soaps, free of chemicals and lye. Carefully-placed rows of white rocks line the walkway between the beds, all constructed by the pregnant girls.
“This area was so ugly,” says Casey May, a teacher at the Crittendon Home. “Now they ask if we can have class outside. Lots of girls have their hands in that garden. Our hope is that it’s a place they can take their children.”
Each garden has its own character and makes its own impact. At Crisis Ministries, the destitute are able to directly provide their own sustenance. In conjunction with the Department of Juvenile Justice, the garden at Kiawah Homes Community Center helps rehabilitate troubled youths. The Jenkins Orphanage garden provides its children joy and confidence. Each project has dedicated volunteers and its own cast of excited young gardeners.
Joseph Watson is the president of the Garden Project’s board of directors. He’s a fixture at the Gadsden Green garden, proudly touting its impact on the children of the neighborhood and the adjacent charter school he helped found.
“It’s more than just what you see growing here. It’s the children that are growing and maturing through it into productive adults,” says Watson. “When there’s something upsetting in the community, it can bring a calming factor. [Working in the garden] is better than the job you got, and it pays more, because of what you get from the children — the hugs and smiles all the time when they walk into school.”
Around him, children scurry around with various tasks. Some are layering dead leaves over pepper plants, blanketing them from the frost forecasted for that night. Others are helping to reattach a sign (“Rise Up”) to an archway at the garden’s entrance. A few more are planting broccoli, watering the beds, and turning compost.
Just eight years since its inception, the Children’s Garden Project is easily the largest endeavor of its kind in the southeast. The volunteers, parents, and teachers all point to the same things — the inspiration it provides, the learning opportunities, the wide-eyed amazement of the children when they pick and eat a vegetable they planted as a seed months before. It seems surreal in today’s factory-packed world to meet a 7-year-old who quickly and confidently announces “kale!” when asked her favorite vegetable, and then grabs you by the hand and leads you to a bed of it to offer a bite. Most inner-city second graders don’t have a preferred method of cooking turnips, an affinity for Brussels sprouts, or a fascination with peas. That’s all commonplace at the Garden Project.
“It’s always been exciting for me, but now everyone thinks it’s so exciting,” says Goodwin. “I get that kind of response a lot. It’s just so natural for me.”
Indeed, growing vegetables is both ordinary and extraordinary. With soil under their fingernails and smiles on their faces, the students at the Children’s Garden Project are reminded of both.