Petaluma’s Valley Vista Elementary School’s teaching garden going strong two decades later

Twenty years ago, Valley Vista Elementary School Principal Maureen Vieth, proposed the idea of creating teaching gardens in the school. In June of 2001, parents, teachers, and students began mulching a grass area between classrooms for the garden. By autumn, they had also built a teaching area in the garden. Later, when she retired, the garden was dedicated to her.

Now, Valley Vista has two gardens – a main garden, and a smaller garden near the greenhouse.

“The Life Lab curriculum was initially started in Santa Cruz near the school where my husband, Bob Vieth, was first a principal,” Maureen Vieth said via email. “I saw the wonders of the garden and how it affected children and realized that this is something I wanted to make happen at the schools I taught in as well. When I came to Valley Vista School, there were many parents eager to be involved and help make the garden a reality.”

Today, Kathy Chambers and Mike Pesutich teach garden classes for eight weeks in the spring and fall. Each class, from transitional kindergarten to sixth grade, has garden class once per week where they are taught a garden lesson in the outdoor classroom and assigned jobs, projects, or activities to do in the garden.

Nurturing a garden is no easy work, and the Valley Vista School has an army of young gardeners working on it.

“The primary students do most of the planting, weeding, and some clean up in the main garden. The upper grade students do most of the maintenance in both gardens. Their jobs include filing planters with soil, moving bark, pruning, removing dead plants, raking, weeding, and upkeep,” explained garden co-ordinator Kathy Chambers. “We also welcome parent volunteers who help monitor students working in smaller groups.”

The students aren’t always working in the garden, though. The kindergarten classes do a lot of exploration in the garden, such as a scavenger hunt, lessons on senses where they smell different fruits, herbs, and flowers, and use the sense of touch to feel different seeds and leaves.

This fall, the second-grade students removed sweet pea seeds from their pods, made seed packets, and brought them home to their families. The third-grade students harvested glass gem corn, removed the kernels, dried them, and popped them to make popcorn. Sometimes students can observe changes in nature such a fungi, spittlebugs, aphids, ladybugs, and various insect eggs using magnifying glasses.

The garden has grown in more ways than one since it started.

“We have been the fortunate recipients of several grants in the past 20 years that have helped our garden program expand from one garden to two,” said Chambers. “We now have an one-eighth of an acre of garden space which includes our main garden, which was established in June 2001, and our second garden, that we call the ‘back 40,’ which was established later.”

Through the years, grants and funding from the Valley Vista PTA have enabled the school to purchase a greenhouse, drip system, more planters, fruit trees and gardening equipment.

In fact, now they grow a variety of plants partially because of Petaluma Seed Bank’s donations of a huge number of unique seeds.

Currently, the garden has five varieties of tomatoes, Richmond green apple cucumbers, cucamelons (watermelon cucumbers), miniature white cucumbers, tigger melons, pineapple guava, lemon and lime trees, moon and stars watermelon. The pumpkins were recently picked by the sixth-grade students who used them for the harvest party they hosted for the primary grade students.

Mother Nature and the school year calendar set much of the gardening timeline. Students plant later than the average gardener to ensure that they are able to return to a bountiful garden in the fall.

The students recently planted beet, turnip, kohlrabi, onion seeds, daffodil bulbs, and fava beans.

So, what happens to all this produce?

“We eat it!” laughed Principal Catina Haugen. “Students enjoy the produce, and we share it with our community and staff. When a table of produce is wheeled out in front of school, it's a matter of hours for it all to be scooped up.”

Both retired Principal Vieth and current Principal Haugen, agree that the garden provides experiences to provoke the curiosity and interest in our natural world for children. It promotes serendipitous learning and is a good segue for students to start thinking of larger world issues.

“When children are given a chance to work with the earth by cultivating it and watching things grow, they learn that they have an impact and what they do makes a difference,” said Vieth. “That knowledge alone can take a child so far and I always felt it was the gift of the garden.”

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