DOVER — Any teachers interested in gardening, students included?
That was the email Jennifer March, Media Specialist at Nelson Elementary School in Dover/Valrico, sent to all the teachers. She had four "yes" answers in less than five minutes. Each of those four teachers and their students now take care of one of the vegetable plots. They plant, weed, water, fertilize and harvest.
Lowe's awarded a grant to March and Nelson PTA president MaryBeth van Sickle to get the needed tools and equipment. They have spent the year leading the students in the revamping of their existing butterfly garden and creating the new vegetable gardens.
"I'm not much of a gardener, but I wanted to tell you about a gardening project at my school," Nelson teacher Terry Senhauser said in an email. "Our PTA president is an avid gardener. Many of our teachers have joined in with their classes to take on the responsibility for part of the garden. It has been great to see our kids outside getting their hands dirty and learning about gardening."
Each of the butterfly shaped plots has a pepper plant, a tomato, a cucumber, a squash, and a spreading plant of chocolate mint for the fragrance. Some also enjoy the scent of the tomato leaves. All of the plants are thriving. Too many children and even adults these days have never seen their food sprouting and growing. These children are watching with excitement.
Only one young lady said she sure didn't want to get dirty, but within a few minutes she was down on her knees, digging with her hands in the soil and enjoying every minute of it.
The larger plot, mainly a butterfly garden, was there when they started this, but it needed some repair.
Janice Fleming's third grade class helped a lot there. They were van Sickle's first helpers in weeding and planting that area and they still help out.
The kids were worried that van Sickle was killing the tree when she cut the cassia way back, but by now they know the importance of pruning because it is a healthy large shrub that brings the yellow sulphur butterflies. She just transplanted a pipevine that will bring gold rim swallowtails very soon.
There is also a passion vine in the garden that will bring zebra longwings, our state butterfly and also the gulf fritillary butterflies to lay their eggs and will feed the caterpillars. All of those are called larvae or host plants and mostly used for the leaves that are there all year round. The caterpillars will eat the flowers, the seedpods, even the stems if they run out of leaf, but that doesn't seem to happen except with the milkweed.
The caterpillars had not hit their milkweeds yet in early April, but the students were checking out plenty of monarch eggs. Soon caterpillars will be eating every leaf and then flowers, but they are going to get some seed sown from the one plant and will multiply the plants considerably. And usually the naked milkweed puts on new leaves as fast as it can. But you can never get too much milkweed. Before school is over there will be new butterflies coming out of chrysalises.
And all kinds of butterflies will get nectar from the pentas, the porterweed and many of the other flowers in the bigger garden.
Because she lives close to the school, van Sickle will drop by during the summer, and the rain will be back, God willing. So the gardens will survive but probably will miss the children and vice versa.
This spring, Sherill Farrell's fifth-grade glass, Kyley Martin's fourth grade glass, Amanda Begy's first-grade class and Olga Perez's third grade class have taken care of the vegetables plots. Next fall there will be four other classes.
Monica Brandies is an experienced gardener and author of 12 gardening books. She has a degree in horticulture and is an alumni fellow from Temple University. She can be reached at [email protected] Her website is gardensflorida.com.