Behind Lakewood Elementary in south St. Petersburg, the college student poked the dirt with her fingers, leaving a trail of tiny craters. When she gave the word, fifth-graders, snug in winter coats, plucked seeds from their palms and plopped them in.
The students from Eckerd College and Lakewood were cultivating their new school garden, a project that supporters hope will yield more than a bumper crop of watermelon and broccoli.
"My goal is to get them to appreciate life," said Larré Davis, a special education teacher at Lakewood whose students work in the garden twice a week. "They think a hamburger's just a hamburger. This will give them a new appreciation for lettuce and tomato."
In Tampa Bay and around the country, more patches of schoolyard are being tilled and tended, a trend that's sprouting from a rich compost of other factors: the obesity epidemic and a surge in environmental awareness. A push for more outdoors teaching and more hands-on learning in science. Maybe even a desire for schools to offer more practical lessons in a bad economy.
"People may be coming at it from all kinds of specific interests, but they are converging on the same thing," said Laurel Graham, a University of South Florida sociology professor who helped start the Tampa Bay School Gardening Network in 2007.
Nobody tracks the number of school gardens nationally, but the anecdotal evidence suggests a budding movement.
California handed out $10.8 million in 2007 to seed nearly 4,000 new and existing school gardens. In Rhode Island, a coalition of growers and educators is aiming for a garden at every school by 2010.
Even stronger evidence backs a more general trend. In 2005, 30,000 people subscribed to a kids gardening newsletter put out by the National Gardening Association. Now, 170,000 are signed up.
Around Tampa Bay, full-fledged school gardens are still rare. But there are signs of life.
About 50 Hillsborough teachers attended workshops that Graham and other USF researchers held last year. In December, the garden at Learning Gate Community School, a charter school in Lutz, was cited in an Education Week story about outdoor learning, which supporters say is a better fit with kids' brains and learning styles.
At Dowdell Middle near Tampa, students are growing floating lettuce heads in hydroponic gardens.
"A lot of our kids are eating french fries and pizza," said Dowdell science teacher Allan Dyer. "The idea was, if we got them to grow something healthy, maybe they'd eat it and choose those things in the future."
Lakewood's garden is a series of 14 raised beds, bordered by yellow marigolds to ward off rabbits and other critters. Carrots, corn, squash, sunflowers and a dozen other crops are either in the ground or ready to be transplanted from a closet-sized greenhouse.
Eckerd students laid out the garden in December. But the idea was dreamed up by Kip Curtis, an environmental studies professor at Eckerd whose two children attend Lakewood.
"I kind of happened to be at the right place at the right time," he said.
Curtis' parents were back-to-the-land believers. He grew up on a farm. At Lakewood, he saw an opportunity to root an educational program in agriculture.
Lakewood principal Kathleen Young saw an idea that meshed with the school's magnet focus on medical science and wellness, as well as an opportunity to expose her students, predominantly low-income and African-American, to careers in science.
"It's opening doors for them to think outside of, 'I think want to be a teacher or I want to be a nurse,' " she said.
The Eckerd students are the Miracle-Gro in the mix.
About 15 of them are helping, with a revolving schedule that has at least three of them onsite every school day between 9 a.m. and 3 p.m. Many of them are getting class credit. But many are also going above and beyond, taking steps to become official mentors to Lakewood students who have emotional and behavioral disabilities.
One day last week, they helped those students plant chives and look for earthworms in the compost pile.
"Oooh, look at that!" said 11-year-old Cortez Cox, who like many of the students had never gardened before. "Something's in there moving."
Davis, the special education teacher, said the garden is having a powerful effect on her students. They describe the garden as "ours," not "mine," she said.
"Before, we were all mean to each other," said John Grant, 12. "But now, if you have a watering can, and somebody wants it, you say, 'Here.' "
The school plans to use the garden for other grades and classes.
Already, prekindergarten students have turned the soil in their hands, and second-graders have made ceramic signs with images of vegetables.
Eventually, the garden will be ripe for lessons on everything from photosynthesis to the web of life, said Peggy McCabe, the school's science curriculum coordinator.
Students will be able to collect data on plant growth, test soil samples and watch the life cycle of butterflies, she said.
Better yet, they'll get to reap what they sow. A harvest party is set for April.
Ron Matus can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8873.