Diane Pollock, Venice High School horticulture teacher, was told by a colleague from England that America is believed to be the only English-speaking nation that uses the words dirt and soil to have the same meaning.
Is a floor soiled or is it dirty? Is the part of the Earth’s surface that is made up of decomposed organic material and disintegrated rock soil or dirt?
So, the first lesson that Diane gives her new students is to explain that dirt is pollution and soil is used to grow what we eat.
“This class is a hard sell because a lot of kids think, ‘Ugh, dirt,’” she says. “It’s not like auto shop. Even though auto shop is dirty, it’s cool.”
California is the largest producer of agricultural products in the country according to the U.S Department of Agriculture. Los Angeles County is in no way comparable to Salinas or Tulare and the students aren’t in class to improve their farming techniques, but this didn’t prevent them from being teased by other students who called them “hick farmers.” With the current universal focus on environmental concerns, this attitude is changing.
Students today are learning about the negative impact of global warming and the greenhouse effect and the need to become aware of the building blocks of nature, their interrelationship and oneness in order to survive.
“Now that their environment is right on top of them, they are beginning to understand the validity of ‘no, maybe you don’t want to be a farmer, but you have to understand the soil and how things grow and how things are put together,’” says Diane.
The Learning Garden next to the high school is comprised of a variety of fruits, vegetables and flowers, and is strictly organic. Botany lessons are incorporated. Did you know that eggplant, commonly considered a vegetable, is really a fruit because botanically, everything that bears a seed is a fruit? In addition, the students learn how plants interact among each other.
“They know that the sunflowers are important, not because of the seeds, but they attract ladybugs and ladybugs eat insects that destroy their plants,” says Diane.
There is a social aspect of the garden too. Not only is interaction between plants taught, the students learn how to interact among each other. There are four students per row working in teams.
“There’s always a few things going on like a power struggle,” says Diane. “I tell them that there’s going to be a power struggle forever when you have a job with co-workers. So, you have to learn how to deal with it now.”
It was 15 years ago that Diane, a landscape designer at the time, brought her concept to a one-acre plot that was nothing but weeds, feral cats and a magnet for vandalism. She was hired by former principal Bud Jacobs and was going to give it two years as an interesting experiment.
“I have to tell you, once you’re involved with teenagers — if it’s your calling and I discovered that it’s mine — as scary as they are on the surface, their energy and what they bring is amazing,” says Diane. “I didn’t know that when I started teaching.”
As a landscaper, Diane was used to having the manpower to help create and maintain her vision. “LAUSD (Los Angeles Unified School District) is different,” she says.
Luck was with her when, in 2002, David King got involved as a representative from Yo San University to help plan the Learning Garden which was conceived by Julie Mann, a Venice High School parent, and David Crow, an acupuncturist and herbalist. The garden turned out to be his calling too and he became the “garden master” to manage it.
“Anyone who works with community gardens knows that plants are almost peripheral,” he says. “The real thing you cultivate is people and community. If you’re not doing that, then the plants are going to deteriorate rapidly because everybody is going to be at odds.”
Diane was a 2008 award recipient in the high school vocational agriculture teacher category of Agriculture in the Classroom, a national foundation that connects agriculture to education. It is a competitive program that selects teachers for their successful efforts in teaching agricultural concepts.
The key to Diane’s success is patience. “The students first come to class and kind of pick up their feet like there’s molten lava down there,” she says. “They won’t touch it. Inside of five weeks those same students are going to be down on the ground picking up earthworms. It’s not magic.
“All they need is exposure. That is what is really critical about these school gardens. There is a lack of exposure and understanding but there’s been a groundswell. The more we see in the paper about the greening of society, the more the kids understand that this is their world.”
The students sometimes have something in common with the plants. Each can be reborn in their own way — the growth of plants from seeds and a change in attitude by the students from a sense of accomplishment.
“It’s amazing to watch them at first — scared, cynical and defensive — and then getting down on their hands and knees and carefully weeding away with an amazing amount of TLC from a plant that they’ve planted that they don’t want damaged,” says Diane.
“Once they grow the seeds or put the plants in the ground, they own it — it’s theirs. Then they watch it grow. There’s nothing quite like pulling a carrot out of the ground and eating something that you grew.”
“Plants don’t take a vacation for Christmas or take the summer off,” says David. The Learning Garden needs volunteers to pitch in at these times when the students are not in school and anytime during the year. Volunteers get to take home extra produce that is available. The bulk of what is grown goes to the West Los Angeles Food Bank. Supplies and financial donations are always welcome.
Both Diane and David agree that gardening is healing. “It’s a great buffer for the human condition,” she says. “There are kids who don’t know where their food comes from. I’m trying to reverse that by going back to where we came from. You cannot deny that we are walking dangerous ground, no pun intended, if we separate ourselves from the planet.”
For more information, www.thelearninggarden.org/.