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Stone blocks arranged in the shape of a giant butterfly outline a profusion of peppers, herbs and small flowering plants. Nearby, a turtle-shaped garden bed sprouts clusters of collard greens, spiky yucca, tufts of dill; and a tree-shaped border surrounds patches of spinach, curly kale and onions.
This cleverly designed “food forest” is where students in grades K-5 at Nathan B. Young Elementary harvest ingredients for salads, soups, tacos, spaghetti sauce, and many other recipes they enjoy in the cafeteria or the classroom.
“Our kids eat whatever they grow,” says Maria Godoy, lead gardening teacher and second grade teacher. “For example, we might take in a harvest and make a big salad with collard greens, spinach, basil, Spanish needle — then the cafeteria serves it to students, and they love it. Many kids go home and tell their parents to buy spinach, or to make a salad with greens they bring home from school.”
Food forests are a type of permaculture, an agriculture method that seeks to create self-sustaining ecosystems in cooperation with nature. Once well established, a food forest generally is less labor intensive than traditional agriculture, because it’s designed to be a complete, self-contained ecosystem with layers of trees to provide a shade canopy, shrubs, vines, ground cover, root crops, etc. This leads to more biodiversity that helps to maintain balance, resulting in less need for fertilizers or pesticides.
Florida’s climate makes it possible to grow a food forest with an astounding variety of crops, many of which can be harvested year-round. During the school year, students at Nathan B. Young harvest about every three weeks — things like spinach, kale, collard greens, peppers, tomatoes, sweet potatoes, yucca, edible hibiscus, mulberries, cotton candy fruit, bananas, mangoes, avocados and more.
An array of herbs — including culinary favorites like lemongrass, lavender, rosemary, basil; and tropical medicinal plants like moringa, cerasee and Spanish needle — have inspired an herbal tea workshop for families.
“I did research to find out which of the herbs have enzymes that are beneficial for the body,” explains Maria. “We did two tea workshops this past school year. I made all the teas at home, put them into bottles and labeled them. We met out in the garden and used a table that we purchased with our Whole Kids Foundation grant. I brought tasting cups, and everyone just served themselves while we talked about the herbs.”
Due to the size of the Nathan B. Young food forest, staff members handle some maintenance, such as the seasonal trimming and pruning of trees and larger plantings. But students do much of the regular, hands-on caretaking, including harvesting, clearing plant material or debris, cleaning up litter, and handling natural waste and food scraps that go into the “banana circle” compost area.
Since food forests are a little bit more “wild” than a typical garden, one challenge in urban or suburban areas is deterring common displaced creatures who may stop in for a bite to eat, such as rabbits, squirrels, raccoons, opossums, deer, ants, etc. Occasionally human intervention is needed to help the ecosystem maintain its balance.
“I’ve learned a few tricks,” says Maria, who carefully researches each plant and pest to find the easiest and safest solution. “Some animals and bugs can be helpful. We have a rabbit who visits and eats the dried-up plant material, so he is welcome. We have added plants to attract more butterflies. Then we get rid of ants by applying baking soda and cornmeal to the nests, and we spray mites with soapy water.”
Maria has been a champion of the school garden since she arrived at the school in 2008, and this food forest, largely funded by a grant from The Education Fund, is a culmination of years of research, work and dedication. Maria retires at the end of this school year, and two other teachers will take charge of the garden.
What a delicious legacy she leaves behind.