Valerie Alchier is a learning support teacher at Fairless Elementary in North Braddock. She's created a garden with the help of her students. Photos by Doug Oster
By Doug Oster / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Eight-year-old Dior Clary held an heirloom tomato the size of a baseball in both of her little hands.
“I don’t know what kind of tomato it is, but it’s green and delicious,” she said with a sweet smile.
Then she went back to harvesting from the garden at Woodland Hills’ Fairless Elementary School, where the students and their teacher, Valerie Alchier, filled up a blue bucket with beans, kale, tomatoes and other produce.
Ms. Alchier, a learning support teacher for grades 1-4, wanted her students to learn the many lessons a garden can teach.
“I wanted to do the type of project with my kids that would be hands-on, would be a fun activity [and] something they could really get into.”
From the looks on these kids’ faces, she has met her goal. Michael Finfrock, 8, couldn’t wait to pick a golden ground cherry and share its sweet flavor with a visitor.
The journey actually started two years ago at the North Braddock school. Ms. Alchier grew seedlings with her students and then donated them to community organizations. Last year, she decided to create a vegetable garden in a huge space behind the school that contained colorful park benches and not much more. She applied for and received a $2,000 grant from the Whole Kids Foundation that she used to build raised beds and get everything else needed to make a garden. With the grant came lots of organic seeds, which were supplemented with seed she saved from her own heirloom tomatoes.
The novice gardener needed to figure out which of the seeds would be best for the students. “I want to plant stuff where they are going to be able to see the results because that’s exciting for them,” she said.
In March, seeds were started in the classroom in flats, and at the end of the school year the transplants were planted out and seeds were direct-sown, too. Some of the plants looked a little sad in the spring but took off over the summer.
The garden is filled with herbs, tomatoes, tomatillos, peppers, eggplant, radishes, beets, cabbage, broccoli, corn, beans, pumpkins, squash, carrots, three types of beets, ground cherries and more.
Over the summer, Ms. Alchier got help in maintaining the garden from workers of the Braddock Youth Project.
Her students returned this fall to a thriving garden overrun with ripe produce.
“It’s pretty amazing because each of my kids put seeds into dirt, saw them sprout, saw them grow into a tiny plant and put those plants into this garden. When they came back, they saw how much they grew.”
Each Friday, she cooks from the garden with the kids. When Principal Jean Livingston visited, she wondered aloud if the tomatoes were ripe because many were not red.
One student called out, “Yes, they are heirloom tomatoes,” which warmed Ms. Alchier’s heart.
“I love it. They know. To be able to see them feel the excitement about heirloom tomatoes that I feel, it’s so great,” she said.
Once a week, the students are treated to a new seasonal recipe.
“I got them to eat cabbage,” she said proudly.
Her cole slaw was a big hit along with a tomato salad that incorporated mozzarella cheese, ranch dressing and garlic scape pesto.
The link between what’s harvested from the garden and what’s eaten is an important part of having a school garden, Ms. Alchier says.
“It’s incredible for them. They get to see the difference between fresh food and food out of the grocery store, what it is to grow your own food and eat it.”
When asked, most students picked tomatoes as their favorite vegetable from the garden. ‘Oxheart,’ ‘Garden Peach’ and an unnamed red striped heirloom were the top three. Ten-year-old Deangelo Halliday pondered his favorite thing, then quietly said, “Everything.”
The garden is tied to the student’s curriculum. Math, science, reading and healthy living are all part of the equation. The kids measured the beds for planting and record what’s going on in the garden.
“Good gardeners keep a journal so they know what they want to do for next year and what they want to change,” Ms. Alchier said to her students.
The success of the first garden and the lessons it taught the gardeners has her thinking about next season’s plantings. Flowers will be added and more corn will be grown. Looking over the expansive lawn, she fantasizes about what they could do.
“Eventually, my plan is there will be no more grass out there,” she said with a laugh.
Valerie Alchier works in the garden with Dior Clary, 8, who is one of her students.
or 412-779-5861. Visit his garden blog here. Twitter: @dougoster1.