A Trip to the Octopus’ Garden
By Karen Kenyon
It’s a sunny day and McKinley Elementary School has a little paradise in its back lot.
No Adam and Eve — but trees and plants that bring knowledge of the earth and its abundance.
And organic, as well! Here is a garden with edible plants and seasonal flowers (lettuce, carrots, radishes, artichokes, fava beans — daisies, sweet peas, California poppies – and even a lemon tree with gorgeous lemons) all surrounded by a sea-themed mural created from broken tiles, pottery, and mirrors. Words that define the International Baccelaureate School’s values weave their way into the patterns of the mural —Respect, Tolerance, Creativity, Imagination, Curiosity….
This area, called “The Octopus’ Garden” is watched over by a large mosaic octopus whose tentacles seem to reach out to enclose visitors with a kindly hug as they enter this magical space.
Two years ago the mural was created with help from ARTS (A Reason to Survive – an organization that works in the community providing art education and experiences for youth) by using images created by the children as they worked with volunteer artists. For two weekends teachers, students, parents and community members came together to bring the mosaic mural to life. Now a mermaid, a yellow submarine, a starfish, a treasure chest, and other sea creatures and objects surround the vegetation.
Since it’s Spring the garden is now flourishing inside its artful enclosure — and green sprouts and blossoms are all appearing. Soon sunflowers, newly planted below the mural will raise up their big sunny heads to lord it over the garden like benevolent spirits looking out for the garden’s inhabitants.
Of course, besides the young children — other inhabitants include the occasional bird, a hummingbird or black raven, feeding on the pine cones covered with peanut butter and bird seed, hanging from the trees; lady bugs, just let loose by Brian Rittko’s Kindergarten class; or butterflies, raised and set free by Richard Kenyon’s second grade class; and let’s not forget the various insects that inhabit the garden naturally — a few beetles, spiders, and those precious worms!
Yes, worms are highly valued in this garden — a worm farm inhabits a container, doing their worm thing, making worm tea which is then used as a fertilizer.
A few pesky flies gather too at the open air compost heaps. Thanks to Diane Gage, a community donor, one of the two composters is a covered proper container.
In fact, composting is an important part of this garden, and children are actively involved. Parent Grant Ferrier, has created a “green team” — children take turns participating on the team. This involves wearing a green vest and going to the cafeteria to bring out the left over lettuce, carrots, and other vegetables, then putting them on the compost heap.
By this process fresh rich soil is created to enrich the garden and ultimately nourish the plants.
And of course, in this organic garden pesticides are never used.
Gina Honma, who teaches 3rd grade, has used the garden to great advantage with her class. “We love the chance to actually see the whole process of watching the lettuce grow from seed to seedling, and on and on. It was amazing to watch the growth and to see the excitement of the kids when we would head out there to see the tiniest change.
“Lettuce picking time was especially exciting,” she says. “They all got their hands in there and dug out their own head of lettuce. We picked enough to donate bags of lettuce to the homeless shelter.”
Ms. Honma’s class even created their own salad bar, “The joy on their faces when we rolled out our own salad bar was incredible. You would have thought we’d discovered gold!
“I didn’t realize salad could be such a treat.”
Educational Specialist Guy deVoss who teaches a class of students with intellectual disabilities says, “The garden helps calm autistic children. They calm themselves as they walk around the garden.”
In general, he says, “When we need a break the garden is a good option. We walk, smell, look at the colors.”
One of Mr. deVoss’s children, Sol, a fifth grader, was even in the cooking class at McKinley, offered by Alchemy restaurant, for a select number of children.
“The class was hands on,” he says, “having the children look at what’s useful, using ingredients from the garden.”
Ricardo Heredia, chef at Alchemy restaurant who conducts the class, says they often use chard and herbs for the class when making pizzas. This class is conducted in the garden. Chef Heredia says they hope to use more from the garden in future classes. The next 8 week class begins April 11 and ends with a dinner for parents at Alchemy.
“Sol was apprehensive about the cooking class at first,” says his teacher, but overcame it. The class helped him assimilate more into the general population.”
Besides the large organic garden McKinley now has a smaller Kinder-Garden, says Jon Rogers, garden organizer, and involved parent who cares for the garden for a half hour or hour and a half each day. Recently, Rogers transformed a sloping earthen area across from two of the Kindergarten classes into a small garden. It’s now planted with radishes, lettuce, and onions.
Kindergarteners do also visit the large garden, but this gives them their own space just steps away from their classes.
Signs lead the way to the garden for children, as well as visitors. These handpainted signs are also a parent’s efforts — Rachel Rathko volunteered her artistic efforts to create them.
“Trips to the garden are educational,” says Jon Peters. “It’s not just running around.”
Besides the important connection to nature, and experiencing how things grow, they learn about ecology, composting, weeding, insects — even math and science. And sometimes reading sessions are held in the garden, as well as art projects being created there.
Richard Kenyon says, “Kids have lost touch with where most important things come from, especially food. Most food is processed and non-organic. My feeling is that if they learn about growing things, they will be more educated consumers. Too many kids are spending way too much time indoors.”
Now it’s time for Brian Rittko’s Kindergarteners to visit the big garden. They come in with enthusiasm – oohs and ahs and with small spy glasses. They will look for insects, inspect the compost piles, check out the worms and new plants and flowers.
“They have come to observe,” he says. “Even caterpillar poop!”
Karen Kenyon has been published in The Los Angeles Times, The San Diego Union-Tribune, British Heritage, Westways, and The Christian Science Monitor. She also has two books Sunshower (Putnam, NY) and The Bronte Family (Lerner Publications, Minnesota) She teaches at MiraCosta College and UCSD-X.