Marianne & Communities in School Gardening


Marianne Lewis has always been a gardener at heart. As co-owner of Chef Warren’s in Southern Pines, she provides eighty percent of the vegetables and herbs used at the restaurant during the spring and summer months from her own urban farm and community garden. Growing up, she worked in the family patch with her dad. “I’ve never lived any place where I didn’t have something growing – even in an apartment – whatever space I had available,” Lewis says.

It’s no wonder, then, that she is involved in the Town of Southern Pines’ Community Garden. Similar to allotments in England, community gardens are comprised of fresh fruits, vegetables, herbs or flowering plants – anything grown organically. The town offers a fenced-in space with 4-foot by 12-foot raised beds filled with compost and organic fertilizers. Each bed is irrigated, and no chemicals or pesticides are used. Gardeners pay a low annual fee for the rights to their plot of land and agree to keep it productive all season.

The organic soil and full exposure to sun make a difference in the size and quality of the pickings. “It’s interesting to see how differently things grow there than they will at the house,” Lewis says of her pine-shaded lot.

Denise Olson, owner of Green Goods eco-friendly store and first-time gardener, agrees. “It’s been a good experience, and so easy. Build the boxes, find yourself some soil, and off you go,” Olson says. On a whim, she and her neighbor started a community garden in their yards. They visited their local home improvement store, picked up a how-to guide, some compost, organic soil, fertilizer and seeds. Then, with the help of internet resources, they built the raised beds from recycled and scrap pieces of wood. With a total of five plots, they yielded hearty amounts of zucchini, squash, green beans, snow peas, cherry, roma and heirloom tomatoes, green peppers, red beets, and cucumbers.

“We built teepee trellises for the cucumbers out of pieces of scrap wrought iron,” Olson says. Her husband is in the building industry, so she happily makes use of materials that are otherwise discarded. “I read that pantyhose were a great way to tie tomato plants up. So I went through my dresser drawers and pulled out all the hosiery I haven’t worn in years,” she says proudly. Another environmentally friendly solution was connecting soaker hoses to rain barrels for the crop irrigation.

Olson initially believed she had to plant all of her seeds indoors in starter beds to give them the best chance for growth. She found, however, that the seeds just dropped into a finger-hole in the dirt grew heartier. Her family helped prepare the soil and build the beds, and then reaped the rewards of eating everything right off the vine or watching mom make some delicious chilled soups.

“There’s nothing better than getting up in the morning and going out to see what’s ready to pick,” Olson says. “You nurture a tiny zucchini one day, and harvest a full-grown one in no time.”

Putting your hands in the dirt and creating something wholesome has been called therapeutic, relaxing, enjoyable, and rewarding. Since the late 1800’s, there have been many movements to provide gardening space in urban areas. Appearing in vacant lots, schoolyards, parks and businesses, gardens have historically gained popularity during periods of social and economic change.

The town Community Garden plans to expand as there is still fenced-in space that hasn’t been built upon. In only their second year, they have already accrued a waitlist for gardening plots. The local farmer’s market is held once each week in close proximity to the garden, so many growers now opt to share their bountiful harvest.

Picture three thousand square feet of nothing but grass. Now imagine it teaming with students surrounded by lush green plantings in raised beds, a horseshoe pit, garden shed and greenhouse, and a bicycle-powered generator. This is the vision for Southern Pines Elementary School’s FirstSchool Garden.

Coordinated through Communities In Schools (CIS), a community health initiative that provides a healthy eating program combined with outdoor physical activity, the cornerstone of this effort is good nutrition.

As the Parent Volunteer Coordinator, Marianne Lewis will help students plant and tend to their own produce as teachers incorporate the garden into aspects of the curriculum in compliance with NC Education Standards (math, science, history and literature and healthy living). Lessons in the garden center on getting back to basics, the rhythm of seasons and the living things around them, good nutrition and respect for the environment, as well as recycling and reusing whenever possible.

“There’s a reason people like gardening,” Lewis says. “It does something for your soul.” And any parent will tell you that the easiest way to get kids to eat things is if they produce them themselves. “My son will eat things out of our garden that he won’t [eat] if they just randomly appear out of the refrigerator,” Lewis notes.

With grant money in place, the “big dig” is slated for September 12th. A schematic will be drawn, water and power sources for the irrigation will be in place, and Lewis can then chalk line where the beds will go. The beds, themselves, are built with SmarTimberZ, landscape timbers made from recycled milk jugs and yogurt containers. Volunteers snap the pieces together and drop rebar through the middle to secure them. The first half of the day is adult-only activities: organization, assembly, and heavy lifting. The afternoon will consist of kid-friendly events like filling pickle barrels, pickup trucks and wheelbarrows with a mixture of compost, lime, and fertilizer. Then they transfer it to the beds.

September 14th is the planting day for the fall garden. Students will start with vegetables like fast-growing lettuce and snap peas. Their garden will be large enough, however, for them to put in just about anything seasonally appropriate. It will be Lewis’ job to make sure it’s maintained, report any crop failures that need to be re-planted, and tell everyone when it’s ready to pick.

Additional grant funding is already in the works to expand and add an area for blueberries, blackberries, and other interactive elements. Southern Pines Elementary is the fifth garden of this kind in the area. Other models reside at Aberdeen Elementary (Aberdeen), Academy Heights Elementary (Pinehurst), Vass-Lakeview Elementary (Vass), and Pinehurst Elementary School (Pinehurst).