When Glencliff High School biology teacher Hank Cardwell looks across an open field that, in a former life, was a tennis court, there’s a gleam in his eye.
His enthusiasm is palpable as he describes plans to cultivate a school garden on the 100-by-100-foot site, situated down an embankment behind the south Nashville school.
Over the next few weeks, the space will undergo a transformation — the sod will be cut and removed, seven tons of donated compost will be applied, the ground will be plowed, and students will transplant hundreds of tiny seedlings to the new garden.
This massive undertaking is an expansion of an idea that took root in May, when the school built a smallish 30-by-10 vegetable garden in a nook between the main building and the school’s greenhouse. The original garden was designed to support the school’s culinary arts program, which each Wednesday during the school year operates a self-sustaining, student-run restaurant called the Southern Tea Room.
“Our idea was to grow some food on Glencliff’s campus that students can sell directly to our culinary arts program to support this restaurant and sort of have two student businesses that feed each other,” Cardwell said.
It was a big step for a school that hasn’t had a horticulture program in over a decade and where, six or seven years ago, Cardwell said students burned the greenhouse. It was rebuilt, but after years of neglect, a lot of work remains to be done.
Promoting healthy lifestyles
While students all seem to enjoy getting their hands dirty, the real motivation for the program is encouraging students to eat healthy, fresh foods.
“We have a three-fold mission: to give students the opportunity to gain leadership experience, to provide access to fresh healthy foods, and to educate the community and school about healthy eating habits,” Cardwell said.
Elizabeth Aleman, the healthy children coordinator for Monroe Carell Children’s Hospital, runs a nutrition, physical activity and health program at Glencliff called Live It! Go for the Red, White & Blue. She’s the taproot stabilizing the project.
“We kind of come up with a variety of different activities and projects that can help schools become a healthier place,” she said.
Student interest spurred her to take an active role in the gardens, she said.
That interest will likely increase as more students see and taste the fruits (and vegetables) of their labors.
“We’ve got a good thing going here,” Cardwell said. “Once they see what we’re doing and get an understanding of what’s going on, support will grow.”
As validation that they are on the right track with their school garden and healthy eating programs, the school had a visit from the deputy secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services earlier this month. William Corr visited the school on a tour touting a $7.5 million obesity grant Davidson County received from American Recovery and Reinvestment Act funds.
Glencliff was chosen for the visit because the school’s garden provides fresh foods that are used by students at the school.
In November, Cardwell and English teacher Karri Bishop started an after-school garden club that meets on Wednesday afternoons. Built-in time for clubs during the school day was cut out this year, so all work must be done after school.
There’s plenty to keep a small army of students busy, but only 15-20 participate. The lack of transportation for after-school clubs prevents many students from attending regularly, and weekly attendance is usually limited to 8-10 students.
“My fantasy would be to have a time during the day for garden club,” Cardwell said, noting the club is competing with after-school activities like athletics.
Another challenge facing the garden club — and the school as a whole — is the high student mobility rate. The fact that 90 percent of the school’s 1,400 students are poor enough to qualify for free or reduced lunch pushes that number higher.
Cardwell said less than half the students — representing 28 countries and speaking 42 languages — who start the year at Glencliff will finish the school year there.
As a junior who’s attended Glencliff for three years, Edward Andrade, 17, bucks the mobility trend. Andrade is a founding member of the garden club who said he also helps his father with a garden at home.
“I find gardening very relaxing,” he said. “I like old-fashioned gardening with the basics.”
Like a seed struggling to push through the soil, the garden club advisers are reaching higher despite the obstacles.
Until the new ground is ready, the club is busy transitioning the small original garden into more of a display area. It already has a hearty crop of herbs — chives, basil, parsley, rosemary, oregano, sage and cilantro.
“It needs to look pretty,” Cardwell said. “This is the one that people see. We’re cutesy-ing it up.”
Students and volunteers have painted the cross-tie frame red and last week put up lattice to camouflage the side of a storage building and provide a trellis for beans they planted.
Already this season, students have cleaned the corrugated planting tables, re-graveled the floor, made more than 2,000 environmentally friendly soil blocks to use for starting seeds and planted more than 2,000 seeds.
“We have every vegetable you could imagine,” Cardwell said, listing Asian greens, squash, several types of tomatoes, peppers. “Name something, and I’ll tell you if we don’t have it.”
Andrade said the diversity of plants is very much like the diversity of the school’s student body.
“I have friends from all parts of the world,” Andrade said. “We even call each other bro and sis. So it’s like I have brothers and sisters all over the world.
“I like that we have a lot of plants that don’t exist [naturally] in this area. We have a lot of diversity, and it brings home whatever diversity we share.”
Planning for the future
With all the interest and momentum for the program, advisers are dreaming big when planning the garden’s future. This year they’re using only a quarter of the space they have available.
“We have so many big plans for the big garden,” Aleman said. “It’s been written into a couple different grants so that we would have compost bins, rain barrels, observation decks, an outdoor classroom so we can have picnic tables, and classes can come take field trips to the site and integrate it into their curriculum. We could host community workshops. There’s a lot of big dreams for it that we hope as we work over the next couple years will come to fruition.”
Nashville Urban Harvest volunteers have been leading garden club meetings and consulting to determine what the school needs and how to move forward, Cardwell said.
“Some of the ideas that we’ve thrown around are stuff like running a market for the community or a small [consumer supported agriculture] program for the community,” Cardwell said. “But at this point, it’s mostly just for our culinary arts program and to get the food — healthy, fresh food — from the garden into the student’s stomachs.”