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By Brian Pierini

The second grader picks another plump hornworm off a tomato plant and carefully places it in its new home, a small bug crate, home to half a dozen other hornworms and plenty of tomato leaves to keep them well fed. The student is a member of the new after school garden club at Field Elementary and she has been collecting hornworms over several weeks, taking them to and from school as her new pets. She and her clubmates are, as the garden club parent volunteers will attest, the first line of defense against the pests that have found their way to the “Field of Greens” school garden. Her schoolmates are also getting a taste of gardening (and the garden’s bounty) on Tuesdays and Thursdays, when they spend time in the garden with Judey Petix, learning about compost, botany, crop rotation, and more. Judey, a parent at Lafayette Elementary, is the garden educator for the Clairemont Field of Greens (CFog), the five-school consortium of elementary schools that are bringing kids into the garden to learn about healthy eating and growing food.

Judey Petix, born and raised in Clairemont, is the garden educator at Field, Lafayette, Whitman, Hawthorne, and Toler Elementary Schools. This is made possible by a garden education grant from the Sage Garden Project, a non-profit organization whose core mission is to prevent diabetes in at-risk youth via funding school garden and nutrition/cooking programs so that kids learn to appreciate many new foods from the garden, learn how to grow and harvest them, and also how to prepare them. Sage has created a garden curriculum (which Judey uses) as well as a kitchen and nutrition curriculum tied in to the Next Generation Science Standards and other standards which California elementary schools are required to teach. Judey taught middle school science and math for several years in the Los Angeles are and has always loved gardening, so she knew the Sage garden education opportunity would be a great fit.

Ms. Judey, in her straw hat and overalls, corrals Ms. Pham’s class into the library at Walt Whitman Elementary where she gives the 2nd and 3rd graders an introduction to transplants, the pros and cons of transplanting versus direct sowing, and the root bound condition of some of the potted plants they will work with that day. She has the kids answering questions and demonstrating they understand the concepts. Then it’s time to go out into the garden. That’s when things get lively. Working in pairs, the kids fan out across Whitman’s eighteen colorfully-painted raised beds, and start eagerly digging holes, plopping the plants in their new homes, and running for watering cans to give their plants a drink. To keep little hands busy, Ms. Judey then has the kids collect weeds and identify them on a weed chart. In the flurry of the last couple minutes of class, the tools, pots, watering cans are all collected and rushed to their places. The kids line up and glance at their new transplants as they follow Ms. Pham on their march out of the garden. Little to they know that Ms. Judey and her parent volunteers will wait for the last child to round the library’s corner, then rush to pluck the plants out of their beds, shove then back in the pots, and present the same lesson to Mr. Brady’s unsuspecting 4th graders.

These local garden ventures have been nurtured for years by Jon Lewis. Walk with Jon at any given recess at Whitman or Toler Elementary schools and you’ll hear kids calling, “Master Gardener! Master Gardener!” as they run to join him in the garden. Soon they are all munching on snap peas and cherry tomatoes, as he goads them into trying mustard greens, inspecting the caterpillars ripped from the plants, and answers questions seldom asked during an elementary school recess, “What is ‘photosynthesis’?” San Diego area schools accumulated nearly 30 schools in the Clairemont area over the years. The ones with strong parent volunteer support received Jon’s attention and expert mentoring. He rounded up his elementary schools with the most promise, approached the Sage Garden Project, and secure the $25K grant for garden education. After attending Sage’s summer garden workshop with Judey, he knew he had found his garden educator.

The latest rising star in Jon’s portfolio is Field Elementary. The Sage founders were aiming to help prevent diabetes in student populations just like Field’s. Over 80% of the school’s student body qualifies for the district’s free breakfast and lunch program, so all students receive free meals daily. The school’s nurse, Juliet de la Paz, as a part of the SDUSD Wellness Campaign, has been encouraging students to make healthy eating choices, sleep longer hours, and wash hands regularly. When parents expressed and interest in a school garden, Juliet created the “Field of Greens” garden committee to link Jon Lewis with the parents. With assistance and/or financial support from the PTA Ninth District, SAY San Diego, the Home Depot on Balboa Avenue, the Master Gardener Association, Kellogg Garden Products, the Clairemont Town Council, and Clairemont residents, four garden beds were built by the parents, staff and students over the summer. Field Elementary students returned to classes in August to find the garden overflowing with pumpkin vines, strawberries, tomatoes, corn, basil, and lettuce. Judey then brought the Sage curriculum to Field soon thereafter as the pilot for the consortium.

Field’s Principal, Amy Griffiths, is committed to having every student learning in the garden with Ms. Judey this school year. “Our children love learning science concepts through the gardening classes with Ms. Judey. She makes being in the garden so much fun that the learning they are doing is effortless and inspiring. It’s been an amazing experience for our students at Field,” she says proudly. The Garden Committee has big plans for the garden, too. Committee Co-Chair and parent Cody Bergener has been reaching out to foundations for additional funding. “We will double the size of the garden this year by adding four additional raised beds,” he notes, “and we plan to install a pollinator and sensory garden soon as well. Also, our Garden Club will sell tomato plants at the Clairemont Garden Tour in May to raise money and give the kids the chance to be ‘gardenpreneurs.'” Come this spring, the young gardeners at the Field will be munching on their own snap peas, radishes, and tomatoes, all the while keeping the grasshoppers, leafcutters, and hornworms in check.