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For These Middle School Students, Gardening Is About More Than Just Planting Vegetables

Jessica Bakeman
Seventh grader Samantha Gotthoffer watches her teacher Melissa Atkins work with herbs the class planted in plastic soda bottles. They had to be brought inside from the school garden as Hurricane Dorian was approaching.

At Tradewinds Middle School in Greenacres, the spindly leaves of endangered native Florida orchids peek out from where the baby plants are carefully nestled in tree branches.

Cucumbers, strawberries and herbs grow out of halved plastic soda bottles hanging along a fence. The school garden is also home to a special peach tree formulated by the University of Florida to flourish in hot climates.

Sixth, seventh and eighth graders grew most of the plants in their classrooms before transferring them outside on the campus, collecting and analyzing data along the way.

This is what a "green school" looks like. For a third year, the school has earned that label from the Pine Jog Environmental Education Center at Florida Atlantic University — a designation that comes with opportunities for grant money and prizes. There are 129 public and private "green schools" in Palm Beach and Martin counties.

One of the nation's oldest nature centers, Pine Jog is located in West Palm Beach on a 135-acre site blanketed with pine flatwood forest. Its efforts to foster environmental stewardship in schools were recently recognized with a $100,000 national grand prize from scientific safety research nonprofit Underwriters Laboratories and the North American Association for Environmental Education.

Credit Jessica Bakeman / WLRN
Tradewinds Middle School seventh graders Sabrina Swayne and Samantha Gotthoffer look at the baby orchids growing in their classroom. The students will eventually plant them in trees outside the school in Greenacres.

Lauren Butcher, the "green schools" program coordinator for Pine Jog, said students learn more than just the mechanics of gardening. They discover that they can have an effect on the world around them.

"Students see that their learning matters and that their actions count," Butcher said. "And it's just not that it will help one day, but they are having an impact right now."

At Tradewinds, students who work in the school garden enjoy eating mulberries right off the bushes, giggling about the juice that stains their hands and clothes pink.

But they learn a bigger-picture lesson, too.

"When you go to the store, you say, 'Oh, buy this, OK,' but you don't really understand where it comes from," said seventh grader Sabrina Swayne, 13. "But when you grow it yourself, there's a satisfaction. You're eating, saying, 'Wow — the work that we did for this so we can eat this!'"

She also said planting trees is good for the environment, because they offer shade and help produce oxygen for people to breathe.

"Without plants, we would all die," she said.

Eighth grader Tymesha Patterson-Wilson, 14, put it this way: "We gotta save the earth, because the earth might die someday, and we don't know about it, because we've been too busy on our phones."

While working through the careful and tedious process of growing the orchids, students also learn about how human development impacts native plant ecosystems.

Science teacher Melissa Atkins said students planted the orchids in May as well as in the previous spring, and she doesn't expect the first flowers for another year.

"We're waiting and hoping for the day when we see blooms. We cannot wait," she said.

"Follow me on Twitter, and you'll get to see it, too."

Credit Jessica Bakeman / WLRN
Science teacher Melissa Atkins, left, uses a touchscreen computer display while her students looks on.


Jessica Bakeman is Director of Enterprise Journalism at WLRN News, and she is the former senior news editor and education reporter. Her 2021 project "Class of COVID-19" won a national Edward R. Murrow Award.
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