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Monday, March 21, 2016

Mother/Daughter Duo Help 2nd Graders Build a Garden at Woodfill Elementary

Second-grade students at Woodfill Elementary work together to plan and plant a garden on school property.

A well-loved Charles Dickens quote perfectly described yesterday, the first day of spring: "It was one of those March days when the sun shines hot and the wind blows cold: when it is summer in the light, and winter in the shade."

Despite the drop in temperature many Fort Thomas residents are eagerly browsing their seed catalogs, tending to their starts, sketching out their gardens and prepping their beds. This year, that includes Michelle LaMantia's 2nd-grade class at Woodfill Elementary, thanks to a joint effort with her daughter, Sable Bender, founder of Homegrown Revival.

Bender, who grew up in Fort Thomas, started Homegrown Revival in January as a commitment to revive at-home gardening, no matter one's lifestyle. In addition to offering at-home consultation and design, installation and planting, and education and maintenance to individuals and families, Bender is also anxious to offer her skills to businesses and schools. Partnering with her mother, LaMantia, was the perfect first step.

LaMantia says last year she had spoken with Keith Faust, principle of Woodfill Elementary, about the possibility of starting a school garden. "This year we decided to try it," LaMantia says. "We plan to start small and hope to expand on it as time goes by and include other grade levels that would like to get involved." 
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The raised-bed garden will be located in the back of Woodfill Elementary, between the parking lot and the building, ideal in terms of space and sunlight. LaMantia and Bender discussed the appropriate size of garden beds based on location and sketched out a plan, calculating the amount of wood and items needed for putting the beds together, as well as the necessary amount of soil. "We discussed how to keep animals out such as deer as well, and how to address that," LaMantia says. "The fun part was our discussion of what to grow. Since we have a short amount of time before school is out we wanted plants that would germinate and produce quickly." Once the mother-daughter team created a supply list, they approached Lowes for possible donations and the PTO for financial support.

"We hope to have three raised beds for vegetables and one raised bed for Mrs. Dashley, the Spanish K-2 teacher," LaMantia says. Each year Julie Dashley teaches 2nd-grade students about the monarch butterfly migration to Mexico. "She would like to create a butterfly garden that includes milkweed for the butterflies," LaMantia says. (Dashley as well well as Heidi Neltner, Johnson Elementary's media specialist, is working on a garden at Johnson Elementary as well.)

Last week Bender met with LaMantia's students for the first time. "We discussed the type of seeds we were planting: organic, non-GMO and heirloom varieties," Bender says. "We discussed what that meant. Then we went outside by table and planted seeds in mini-greenhouses to get started. The students helped pick what they would be planting, and recorded where in the greenhouses they planted the seeds." 

Michelle LaMantia's 2nd-grade students will regularly use charts to gauge their garden's progress.

LaMantia says students will be asked to check their plants daily for water and growth. "Students will keep a growth journal as well where they will use math to help them with things such as measuring the plants as they grow," LaMantia says. "Students will also use math to help do other jobs such as section off the garden beds with string so we can separate our different plants. Students will keep a class chart of what is growing in each bed. They will be asked to care for the plants, such as watering, weeding, harvesting and distributing the vegetables. This will involve teamwork and problem solving with their classmates. I would also like to have the students educate other students in the building on this process and what they have learned or would change as the year goes on." 

Students will also be tasked with creating and presenting a plan as to what should be done with the food as it's harvested. Already the students have chosen to plant items that could complement a salad bar with hopes of using their vegetables in their school's cafeteria salad bar. "Depending on how much the plants produce, if there is more than we can use, the students will be presented with this problem and will need to work together to come up with a solution," LaMantia says. "This might include something such as a donation to a food pantry." 

This new venture compliments 2nd-grade curriculum well. "Our science curriculum is based off of the Next Generation Science Standards," LaMantia says. "In 2nd grade students learn about parts of plants and what plants need to grow. We also learn about how animals help plants with pollination and dispersing seeds. Our standards also look at the diversity of plants in different habitats. With these new standards we look at teaching the students to have a deeper understanding of topics. Having a garden will help them to do just that by immersing them in the process. Having the children involved in hands-on learning can strengthen a child's ability to comprehend the classroom concepts they are being taught and this can improve retention." 

Michelle LaMantia says hands-on learning can help children better comprehend classroom concepts.

The project perfectly complements Woodfill Elementary's Nutrition Month and 2nd-grade science curriculum.

This project also complements Woodfill Elementary's Nutrition Month. Students in all grades recently finished Healthy Foods Weeks, in which they focused on eating the daily recommended amount of fruits and vegetables. "Growing a garden ties directly into the importance of nutrition," LaMantia says. "What better way to get in your daily recommended amount by growing your own? It also gives children ownership and responsibility. They must take care of something on a daily basis to see what it may need. This can lead into problem-solving skills, which are so important to all of us. Students will need to problem solve about how much water their plants need, less or more sunlight, or what to do if their plant needs something to keep its vines off of the grown. Gardens also can give children a sense of community and ways to give back whether it be giving vegetables they have grown to the school cafeteria, selling items at a farmers' market or giving what has been grown to a food pantry or soup kitchen. I also believe being outside in nature is good for everyone. Getting outside can be very therapeutic and relaxing for children and adults alike." 

Bean picture courtesy of, which is where Sable Bender purchases her seeds.

Bender says kids are great to work with because they're so enthusiastic. "I showed the kids some of the heirloom varieties we'll be growing, and I had originally been afraid that they would say, 'ew, gross,'" Bender says. "Especially because we're growing things they've never seen before at a grocery store. But I was pleasantly surprised. All of the kids wanted to plant Dragon Tongue Bush Beans and weren't put off by the idea of Green Zebra tomatoes. Before we even made it outside they were asking me if I could send them home with seeds." 

LaMantia says they are starting small because of the newness of the project and its proximity to the end of the school year. As the project gains momentum she plans to invite other teachers to get involved as they feel they have time to this year. "Next year we would definitely like to expand this more once we get deeper into it," LaMantia says. "As a faculty we discussed involving others such as the art classes to create some garden art. We hope this takes off and becomes something all students participate in." LaMantia also hopes to offer a summer enrichment class related to gardening and nutrition as a continuation of taking care of the vegetables throughout the summer.

Bender says donating her time and skills to this project, in particular, has been fun because it has coincided with the start of her business, of which her mom has been so supportive. "She's encouraged my gardening and my time farming, and has helped keep an eye on my plants while I'm away," Bender says. "Thankfully, we share a love of many of the same foods, especially tomatoes, so it's easy to grow food to share."

Michelle LaMantia (left), 2nd-grade teacher at Woodfill Elementary and Sable Bender (right), founder of Homegrown Revival.

Bender didn't grow up gardening, however. Growing gardens in Fort Thomas, especially, can be difficult due to lack of space—as was the case for LaMantia and her family. "To be honest, my daughter has opened my eyes to gardening in small places and different food," LaMantia says. "She has shown me ways to use planters and small garden beds in creative ways. I love watching her enthusiasm for gardening and eating organic foods and then passing that on to others. Sable is so good with the students and they enjoy having her in the classroom and talking to her. Working with her on this garden project is so special because she gets to share her passion with me and my students, and I get to share my passion of teaching with her. As a parent we all try to guide and teach our children in the best way that we can. The truth is, we can learn so much from our children as well whether they are a 2nd grader or a 24-year-old adult." 

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