Lower School garden celebrates its roots
Posted 10/06/2016 04:33PM

Head to the playground for recess or keep gardening? 

Second-grader Sophia Valentine would opt for keeping her hands on a pitchfork over hanging from the monkey bars or zipping down the slide.

“I’d rather stay here and keep working,” Sophia said to Durham Academy Lower School science teacher Lyn Streck when told it was time for her class put away watering cans and shovels for recess Wednesday afternoon.

Sophia is one of many Lower School students, present and past, who have found joy in planting, watering, weeding, shoveling, raking and harvesting in the Lower School garden.

Sam Frey is another. The 2016 DA graduate, now a first-year student at Cornell University, has been “passionate about gardening ever since the cabbage growing contest in Mrs. Streck’s science class. I was fascinated with the process of planting and nurturing fruits and vegetables because it made me think about the food we eat and where it comes from. Being able to go out and see the science behind that in the Lower School garden made me even more interested in farming and the food industry.”

The Lower School celebrated the garden’s 10th anniversary on Sept. 30 at Lower School Unity Day, and the garden has been inspiring students since it was dedicated at Unity Day on Sept. 22, 2006. It was appropriate that both the dedication and the anniversary celebration were part of Unity Day, which celebrates working together, because the garden has been a joint project of faculty, parents and students. Fourth-grade teacher Chris Mason created a 10th anniversary movie about the garden so that current students could see it evolve from its humble beginnings.


The garden began with a plan that landscape architect Frank Hyman created for a 36-foot-by-28-foot space surrounded by a 7-foot-high fence to protect it from hungry deer. But the plan had a projected budget of $7,900, and “we couldn’t afford that,” said Streck, who was the driving force behind the garden. “Parents and teachers came forward and said, I’ll help you. Teachers installed the deer fence with Frank’s help and also a rabbit fence to keep rabbits from burrowing underneath.”

Second-graders placed the first plants — lettuce, cabbage, rutabaga and radishes — in the garden on Unity Day 2006, and the garden continues to play an important role in the second grade science curriculum as a “living lab” with its focus on botany, nutrition and food webs.

The Lower School garden’s roots go back even further than 2006 — one existed when the Lower School was located on the Academy Road campus. But when the Lower School relocated to Ridge Road in 2002, a garden was not part of the original plan. It wasn’t long before there was talk of creating one on the new campus.

Streck said in 2005, as the “food craze was just starting and everyone was paying attention to how fresh is our food, how locally is it grown,” the push began for a Lower School garden on Ridge Road. A committee of parents and faculty worked to make the garden a reality. The days of studying plants in the classroom and gardening indoors were no more. The Lower School garden, located at the east end of the building, is now an integral part of the curriculum.

The garden got a lift in 2008, when the firm Bountiful Backyard created a garden plan that added a cedar retaining wall for more plantings and a moveable teaching table for Streck.

“We take everybody, grades one through four, out to the garden,” Streck said. “Everybody needs to understand that most plants germinate from seed and a seed is a promise to create a new plant. They learn what plants need to survive and flourish. And when they harvest, there is lots of joy. They see the roots, they see the leaves, the stem, the part we’re going to eat.”

Even the pickiest eaters have been known to try foods, like radishes, that they have helped cultivate in the garden.

“I tell them your taste buds are growing, so try new things,” Streck said. “If you don’t like it now, that’s OK. Try it again later.”

Lower School Director Carolyn Ronco said the garden is a result of Streck’s vision and passion.

“Lyn knew she wanted a garden,” Ronco said. “Having a garden gives children a way to learn about plants and biology. When you’re out there doing it, you see you have to weed, how important water is, making sure the soil is fertile, getting lots of sunshine. You can read it all in a textbook, but being in the garden helps you understand. … All of our Lower School children have an opportunity to get out there. The garden is an important part of the curriculum and not an afterthought.”

Sam Frey’s experience in the Lower School garden stuck with him. In 2010, Frey and his brother Andrew (DA ’14) started a nonprofit called Durham GardenWorks.

“It was aimed at providing and teaching the youth of Durham about the benefits of eating organic, local produce,” Frey wrote in an email. “Seeing that my excitement for gardening came from my Lower School science class, I thought it was only natural to extend this organization to the root of my passion.”

Frey and classmates Nash Wilhelm-Hilkey and Foster Harris focused their Senior Project on the Lower School garden, renovating the planting beds that were beginning to rot after nearly 10 years in the ground.

“We had an extremely fun time with the entire renovation process, and I hope it benefits students for many years to come,” Frey wrote.

And it does. Second-graders Hannah Elman, Wyatt Satterfield and Larry Yon were having fun in the garden on Wednesday afternoon.

“I like to water the plants because it’s healthy for them,” Hannah explained. “Plants need soil. Some people can turn it over for them so it’s more fresh.”

Wyatt likes finding bugs and worms in the garden.

Larry likes to water the plants “because I want to take care of the garden.” 

By the time these second graders are seniors, it will be time to celebrate the garden’s second decade, and a new generation of Lower School students will be enjoying time in the garden.

View more photos of the 10-year-old Lower School Garden on Flickr.


Lower School Garden 2016
An independent, coeducational day school, pre-kindergarten through grade 12.
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