The Walgrove Wildlands help city kids connect with the natural world

By Christina Campodonico

Students Lily Bartoli, Owen Shelton and Ezekiel Kilgore harvest carrots in the edible garden; Rhys Bell and Johnene Jackson run on a path through the Wildlands
Photos by Courtnay Robbins

Vegetables scare some kids away, but they’re the most delicious part of the school day for students of Walgrove Avenue Elementary. The LAUSD campus on the Mar Vista/Venice border boasts a burgeoning edible garden, a 25,000-square-foot native plant habitat for monarch butterflies and other pollinators, and a hearty curriculum that intertwines the two spaces.

The seeds for the Walgrove Wildlands sprouted six years ago, with a campaign by Walgrove parents to replace decommissioned bungalow classrooms not with asphalt but with open space. Landscape architect Ryan Drnek of Culver City-based Sodder Studio designed the space pro bono as a coastal sage scrub habitat. There’s a meadow of native grasses and wildflowers, a forest of oak, pine and sycamore trees, and an arroyo with willows, wild strawberry and wire grasses that doubles as a bioswale that can capture as much as 5,000 gallons of storm water.

“It’s attracted all kinds of life,” says Walgrove Principal Olivia Adams. “We see a lot of hummingbirds, a lot of butterflies. … Three summers ago we actually had a duck family that came and hatched eggs.”

On Saturday afternoon, the Walgrove Wildlands hosts a free public block party in conjunction with the Mar Vista Green Garden Showcase, a tour of exemplary residential landscapes intended to demonstrate that sustainable can also be beautiful. The starting point for tours is Venice High School’s organic Learning Garden, cared for by students and master gardeners.

At Walgrove’s 5,000-square-foot edible garden, students learn not just to eat their vegetables but also how to plant, pick, clean and cook them, with an eye toward the life cycles of plants within the larger food web.

“They learn all the parts of the plant,” says master gardener Daniela Roveda, who works with students twice a week. “They learn we eat certain parts. They learn families of plants. They learn how a plant gets nutrition, what it needs to grow. They learn some basic photosynthesis, and they work with their hands. They dig, they fertilize, they prune; they mix water and dirt.”

“Everything is hands on,” adds Jeanne Kuntz, of the garden’s chief volunteers and a past organizer of the Green Garden Showcase. “They learn about what the soil needs. They learn about what the plants need, and the seasons. … And from that we teach them another aspect of environmentalism: Should you go out and buy a peach that’s going to travel halfway around the world in the middle of winter? Do you want all that fossil fuel being used?’”

Students get to practice local farm-to-table techniques when they host the occasional campus farmers market to fundraise with surplus produce — “which frankly happens rarely,” says Roveda, “because they eat everything!”

Parent volunteer Clara Gottesburen confirms a shift in her daughter and daughter’s classmates’ attitudes toward plant-based foods.

“They have a lot of fun with Daniela and Jeanne, and they just kind of throw themselves out there,” she says. “They’re trying all these different vegetables that their parents would buy at the grocery store and they’d be like ‘Ew! Weird! I’m not doing it.’ Now they’re going to the grocery store with their parents and saying, ‘We grow that at school, Mama, let’s get it!’ It really expands the kids’ brains, along with their palate.”

The garden provides a unique learning opportunity for differently abled students, says fourth- and fifth-grade special education teacher Kathy Elkins.

“I’ve found that the garden itself, and just being in a place that has a lot of greenery, has been really impactful on them,” Elkins says. “Students that require more visual, multi-modality learning, this is a huge thing for them. … They don’t get it from words on a page, but they do get it when they’re putting their hands in the ground.”

The neighboring Wildlands, rich with native milkweed to sustain monarch butterflies and caterpillars, also complements multiple facets of student learning, notes fourth- and fifth-grade teacher
Elvia Perez.

“One of our studio lab teachers, he tied math into art by going into the Wildlands, looking for the Fibonacci sequence in nature. And then we’ve also used the Wildlands for theater and for filming PSAs about weather. Students use it as a backdrop or as part of their plays,” she says, adding that the Wildlands also functions as a safe space where children can sit with their emotions, practice mindfulness and discuss their feelings during group sharing circles, called “council.”

“There’s some kids that, you know, they come with a little bit of baggage from home. They will ask if they could step away for five to 10 minutes, and they’ll take a peer and they’ll go out there and walk around the Wildlands. It helps soothe them and get them ready for the class,” she says.

“When students find a caterpillar out on the blacktop where it doesn’t belong, I see them without prompting, pick it up and put it on a leaf and carry it back, and put it on the right plant,” says Elkins. “This is not a teacher standing over you and saying, ‘Don’t kill the ant.’ This is intrinsic value for life that I’m seeing. It promotes kindness, and it promotes a feeling that you’re connected to something bigger.”

Parent volunteer Denise Bell has seen the edible garden facilitates academic learning while fostering personal growth.

“I think it develops your brain in a more balanced way,” she says. “The grass is greener where you water it.”

Visit the Walgrove Wildlands between noon and 4 p.m. Saturday (April 28) at 1630 Walgrove Ave., Mar Vista (enter on Appleton Way). The free event is part of the larger Mar Vista Green Garden Showcase, happening from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. throughout Mar Vista. Visit to preview tour stops.