By Robert Jeffers, LAUSD Teacher and Los Angeles Audubon Board Member

The raised beds of the Dorsey garden bursting with food in April 2010.

The raised beds of the Dorsey garden bursting with food in April 2010.

“This tastes really good!”

“And, you grew it right here! In your school garden, and remember that you picked it … this morning,” I reply with the satisfaction and unchecked joy that teachers feel when students connect the results of weeks and months of hard work to an outcome they themselves have worked to achieve: a bowl of pasta with fresh heirloom zebra tomatoes, Italian basil, and green onions they grew themselves.

Almost every year over the past 7 years I have had a conversation similar to this one with my students at Susan Miller Dorsey High School as they discover the wonders of working a communal green space shared by many to do something simple but uncommon to them: grow food and provide habitat for wildlife in the city. Opened in 1937, Dorsey is an inner city Los Angeles high school with a rich history and a head-turning alumni base that includes famous artists, a member of Congress, notable musicians, and many NFL players. That history instills a hidden pride in even the most doubtful students. When introduced to the garden - that the simple gesture of putting a pumpkin seed in the ground or planting a tiny toyon - students become more engaged in both school and community. It’s a lesson I have witnessed countless times at Dorsey and made possible by water, sun, and a small space adjacent to the track field. The lessons learned from having a garden transcend the academic and engage the cultural, the personal, and the emotional. And, the results are additive – they build.

Usually, students learn about the garden either through our EcoClub or through our environmental stewardship class. Over the years the sequence has usually played out like this: students in the EcoClub will like what they do enough to take an entire class on environmental stewardship. Other students will then want go on a field trip because of what they’ve learned at Yosemite National Park during spring break and others will want to join LA Audubon’s Baldwin Hills Greenhouse Program so they can study even more about the environment and work directly to improve it in their neighborhood. Those that love it begin to take the initiative outside of class and in:

“Mr. Jeffers … can we take our test in the garden?”

“Sure! Grab a book or a clip board and we’ll head on out.”

Though each year brings new students and idiosyncrasies particular to that group, what always remains the same is the wonder. Students can’t help but have a strong reaction to and connection with the garden. Sure, it doesn’t always start positive:

“That’s nasty!! Worms!” or “I’m not eating that – it came out of the ground! It’s dirty!” or “Yikes! Spiders!!”

However, that almost always changes by the second visit. Students begin connecting with the garden —they notice House Sparrows, Finches, and the “Tuxedo Bird” (the Black Phoebe) visiting the birdbath. They ask for more time in the garden — during AND after school.
Current EcoClub student and Baldwin Hills Greenhouse Program Restoration Leader, Gerson Rivas, stated it clearly:

“Planting plants is fun … and when you [Mr. Jeffers] say it’s time to go … I always feel like I wish we could stay 30 more minutes.”

Young native plants installed along the fence bordering the Dorsey garden and the sidewalk off-campus, 2009.

Young native plants installed along the fence bordering the Dorsey garden and the sidewalk off-campus, 2009.

Without the garden, moments like these never happen. But like the garden itself, it takes time to grow both the reputation and the program. My journey with our garden started about 9 years ago with Dorsey students in the newly re-established EcoClub, when we started on-campus recycling and thinking about other ways to green up our campus. Within just two years, we had won recognition from Disney and ABC Family as one of the top recycling schools in the city and county of Los Angeles, and got the ball rolling on re-vamping the neglected garden space on the edge of campus. As a teacher, I wanted students to understand the importance of green space in an urban environment and the presence of urban wildlife, like birds, in their community and on their campus.

Our garden is not perfect – it’s on a forgotten, abandoned shot-put “ring” adjacent to the track and had been fallow for several years. The space had rotten wood boards that roughly marked out the shape of beds, a makeshift greenhouse fashioned from white PVC piping and tattered sheet plastic, and an unreliable irrigation system with a single impact rotor sprinkler head. With little sleuthing I heard rumblings of former teachers who once worked the space with great results for school and students alike and I figured it was now my turn to introduce the current generation of students to gardening — the perfect bridge between student and nature. Knowing I couldn’t go it alone, I enlisted the assistance of two University of California Master Gardeners — current Los Angeles Audubon Board member, Lisa Fimiani, for direction with native plants, and food plant specialist, George Pessin. The tandem worked perfectly as the students learned from experts outside of Dorsey, which connected the wider community to the students and the students into the wider community. Again, the benefits of a green space located on a school campus reinforced and transcend academics.

The first year we met once a week after school in the garden, and we regularly had between 8 and 20 students show up ready to weed, till, plant, harvest — whatever the space called for. They learned not only how to plant but when to plant. They learned the power of teamwork as together they got so much more done than any one person ever could. And, importantly they grew food: kohlrabi, radishes, fava beans, chard, kale, carrots, scallions, melons, strawberries, many lettuces and more. They ate what they grew, gave away what they didn’t and learned through experience. They watched as tiny native plants and seeds shot up to create a living fence that provided food and habitat to native invertebrates and birds. Each year the discoveries, the lessons, the wonder stayed the same, but the students and the people involved changed.

Dorsey CAGrape 300ppi 4x

The native California grape is well established in the Dorsey garden and sets fruit each year (eaten by students and wildlife).

Original students graduated and new students enrolled. Original volunteers moved on to new projects and new volunteers emerged. Five years ago Morgan Carey of Victorious Green donated four beautiful green garden beds, complete with drip irrigation systems. Students helped assemble, install, and maintain the beds. And again, they learned not just gardening and drip systems, but pragmatic lessons about construction, project planning with implementation, and teamwork in a real-life context outside the classroom. This little patch of earth has enabled students to learn about not just fresh vegetables, native plants, and how to attract birds, but the value of securing, maintaining, and preserving these spaces so others can share in the experience as well.

Current Dorsey student, EcoClub officer, and Greenhouse Program Restoration Leader, Hilary Alas, summed it up well: “Not being inside the classroom … having access to fresh air … exposing [students] to the garden can encourage [student] interest and awareness of nature … and to different ideas and lessons outside of the normal school curriculum.” If these lessons fall outside the conventional school curriculum then I am thankful that Dorsey has such a space. I hope that other schools can experience the wonder of having one as well.