Just as every plant starts with a seed, every good garden starts with an idea.
Earth science teacher Amy Bowles has wanted to expand Kempsville Middle School’s garden for many years.
That wish is growing into a peaceful learning environment where students become caretakers of the Earth, thanks to help from staff, community members and grants totaling $10,000 from the Virginia Beach Education Foundation.
The project includes an outdoor classroom, vegetable beds, native plants and a sensory garden. Among fragrant flowers, students can concentrate on Earth science lessons and meditate between classes.
On a recent sunny day, teachers enjoyed lunch under shaded picnic tables, and students spread out on Adirondack chairs near blooming rose bushes. Library Media Specialist Mary Sutterluety spotted a butterfly fluttering by sprouts of cilantro, parsley and lemon balm.
“Oh! A pollinator!” she exclaimed. It was one of many exciting moments as Bowles, Sutterluety and gifted teacher Heidi Yeager gathered forces to build the garden.
Many VBCPS departments and community groups helped cultivate the space.
Landscape Services provided six raised beds and gravel; Food Services, vegetable seeds; and Princess Anne Farmer’s Market, a rain barrel, gardening manual, soil sample kit and a lot of good advice.
Staff, family and friends also helped out. Orchestra teacher Alex Kelly built an arbor and donated a grapevine. PE teacher Wendy Revolinksy donated and planted daisies and lilies from her own garden. Her husband, Kempsville Middle School’s 2020 Teacher of the Year Joey Caruthers, helped create a walkway and planted a very fickle fig tree.
Teachers Matt Brown and James Sollner have lifted and planted and watered and moved so much of the garden that they should name an area for their hard work, Sutterluety said. And a dozen more teachers moved mulch, offered advice and promised to help maintain the garden.
“Many of the staff have turned up to assist the ‘original crew’ in planting and digging – and raking, and pruning,” said Patti Jenkins, the school’s principal. “It’s been a real family affair! Isn’t easier to do hard work with your friends? That’s the feeling.”
Sustainability is a key. Students put their leftover lunch food into bins for compost, which nourishes the garden. The outdoor furniture is made from recycled plastic. Stumps donated by Treecycling provide seating for fresh-air lessons.
“I’m really glad we’re getting to do this,” said Bowles, who encourages reducing, recycling and reusing waste as part of the school’s Green Team.
In May, the teachers planted phlox, wormwood, peony and several other varieties.
Future plans include establishing a bee colony to help sustain the garden while students learn about pollination. Life science classes will use the garden to learn about symbiotic relationships, food chains and more. Bowles said she will use the garden to talk with students about erosion and runoff, examining how gravel isn’t the best groundcover compared to soil that soaks up rainwater.
“It’s so nice that next year we’ll be able to use it more as a learning space,” Yeager said.
Teachers sign up to let their classes meet in the scenic space. And young musicians are already bringing their instruments out there for practice.
“We’ve investigated plants that have tactile and olfactory stimulation for students who may have visual impairments,” she said. “We’ve built up garden boxes to include students with mobility challenges and have placed them on a harder surface to accompany a wheelchair. We also wanted to address students who may need support with de-escalation; thus, creating a space that has a calming purpose.”
It’s been inspiring to watch the garden grow, Jenkins added.
“Everyone is smiling and laughing, and the garden just keeps absorbing all of that energy!”