Feed The Soil

Driving up the road to Austin Discovery School during the school year, you’re likely to see gaggles of kids with wheelbarrows, shovels, hoses and hoes. You also might see a bunny named Rusty being “hopped” on a leash, a pond being dug, trees being watered, chickens being held and leaves being hauled and spread. That’s because the public charter school’s Eco-Wellness program is an integral part of the kids’ educational routine. It’s also a critical way to fulfill the school’s mission of creating socially aware and confident critical-thinkers through hands-on learning.

The 2016–2017 academic year has been particularly focused on the hands-on learning part. In fact, the hands of more than 500 students are busier—and dirtier—than ever. The school moved to a new campus in August of 2016, leaving behind huge gardens of rich soil that had been nurtured for more than a decade. So in their new digs, they had to literally start from scratch. “When we got here six months ago, this field was basically a desert,” says Thora Gray, Eco-Wellness teacher for kindergarten through fourth grade.

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After completing a permaculture class last year, Gray and fellow Eco-Wellness teacher, Tim Ornes (fifth through eighth grades), planned the space and, along with an army of student and parent volunteers at a multi-weekend event called a Permablitz, created a food forest. They dug all the berms and swales by hand and, because access to water is an issue, built the fields on contour so that when it rains, the swale catches the rain and the berms sponge it up. After that, they planted loquats, Mexican plums, pawpaws, peaches, satsuma oranges, figs, pomegranates, elderberries, asparagus, artichokes and blueberries. Then, later that year, with a grant from TreeFolks, they planted a whopping 32 more trees around campus.

Aside from the food forest, another major endeavor this year has been preparing their fields to grow food. But that can’t happen overnight. “We keep telling the kids, You have to feed the soil before you can expect the soil to feed you,” says Gray. “There’s no way you’re gonna get food out of caliche soil.” So the kids have planted cover crops, such as buckwheat with radishes, cowpeas, fava beans (“beans bring nitrogen to the soil”) and oats. A donation of thousands of bags of leaves and wood mulch is also helping feed the soil. “We can promote worms coming and mushrooms growing,” Gray says. “It’s a great lesson plan, too,” adds Ornes. “You, haul that there, and You, haul this here,” he says with a laugh, pointing to several nearby students.

But just because the fields aren’t yet ready to yield carrots and strawberries and other kid-faves, that didn’t stop the Eco-Wellness team—or even slow it down. Ornes and his middle-schoolers planted gardens in straw bales instead—cherry tomatoes, marigolds, lettuces, peppers, chard, arugula and more—with the goal of harvesting the veggies to share in a salad bar at the end of the year. “The bales had a lot of grass in them, so we had a competition to see who could pull the most grass,” says eighth-grader L.J. “Mr. Tim offered us a prize, because we didn’t really want to pick grass.” Ornes begs to differ. “They would fool you, though. They looked like they were having some fun.”

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With help from these same reluctant-weeder middle school students, the second- and third-graders dug a pond this year after a hidden natural spring was discovered when the school’s septic system was being installed. “When we started digging, the water just started rushing in,” explains third-grader August. “And now, there’s frogs and tadpoles and fish.” 

Still another project has been to plan, design and build a rain garden to prevent rainwater from running off into neighboring fields. “The kids learned about impervious cover and how pollutants run off with the water,” says Gray. August chimes in, “Sometimes in math class, we get to go out and sit by the rain garden and do math.” In fact, students did some impressive math; together, they found the area and perimeter of the rain garden and made a map of the whole space. Bea, a second-grader who also worked on the project, says that the rain garden was her favorite part of the year. “It was fun digging it up. It’s like a mini-pond. Kami [another student] saw a frog.”

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These remarkable accomplishments haven’t happened without their share of challenges, though. Wild hogs (or armadillos, they can’t be sure) dug up the food forest last winter. This past spring, high winds picked up the toolshed and threw it into a tree. But these incidents are also learning opportunities. Ornes installed a wild game camera so students could spot and identify wild hogs, coyotes, bobcats, raccoons and opossums. And on hikes every Friday, the students learn about different kinds of scat and what they contain (berries, hair and bones, oh my!).

The keys to the Eco-Wellness program’s success, says Gray, lie with the school community. “We couldn’t have done this without the parents and the kids. It’s not like the parents set this up and then the kids have a tiny garden lesson; kids are very active in all of this. They’re learning how to have real-world negotiations with each other—how to move a wheelbarrow together, how to communicate effectively, to have nice words with each other—all when they’re not sitting at a desk, where they’re doing real-world stuff. And as a result, they’ll have tomatoes and carrots!”

By Anne Marie Hampshire • Photography by Andy Sams