HARRISONBURG — In 2011, Harrisonburg applied for a grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture for gardens.

The entire city was behind the effort — including the city manager’s office, Harrisonburg City Public Schools, Massanutten Regional Library and the Explore More Discovery Museum — but didn’t receive the funding, said Amy Goodall, James Madison University associate professor of geographic sciences.

By then, teachers and Goodall were so excited about the prospect of school gardens that they went ahead and started a program of their own. Since then, she and JMU students have partnered with four city schools — Thomas Harrison Middle School and Keister, Bluestone and Smithland elementaries — to build, tend or work with children in the school gardens.

In 2012, Goodall partnered with Keister Elementary to begin its garden, which has grown to roughly 60 by 36 feet. Elementary and university students work together to plant and care for vegetables throughout the year, which they then eat in their school lunches.

On Wednesday, 45 Keister summer schoolers planted popcorn and harvested radish and lettuce for their lunch.

Goodall said she wants younger students to learn the importance of eating healthy and develop a love for the outdoors. In addition to teaching kids about plants, they also incorporate lessons on pollinators and insects and the role they play in plants’ health.

“We want them getting excited and observing that we have a high variety of species here,” Goodall said.

Keister Elementary third-grade teacher Regina Hissong, who helped start her school’s program, said her students are more eager to try vegetables they grew, harvested and prepared.

“We were really pleased to see the kids trying radishes, carrots, lettuce, all from the garden [Tuesday] for lunch,” she said. “And they were eager to do it.”

JMU also had a large role in growing Keister’s garden from “a small, corner garden that teachers were trying to monitor on their own to a giant garden,” through grants and Goodall’s work, Hissong said. Now, some student opt to spend their recess tending to their vegetables.

Fifth-grader Madelin Paguada, 10, daughter of Oscar Paguada and Marlen Herrera-Hernandez, said she enjoys planting vegetables in the garden and learning about them.

“Some kids, they need it,” she said. “I want them to know that they get food from the garden, and they have to be grateful, even if they don’t like it. … I want them to learn more about the garden and how to plant it.”

Fifth-grader Dalya Alali, 10, daughter of Dawood Alali and Nahidah Al Yazdo, said her favorite vegetables are radishes, after tending to them herself. Her classmates also shouldn’t be afraid of insects, she said, because they help the garden.

“It’s exciting like when you see something and it’s growing,” she said.

While some Madison students volunteer their time in the gardens, others base their senior capstones on the project. Of the 19 senior capstones Goodall’s had related to the garden, she said, more than half changed their career paths because of the experience. Rather than pursuing strictly environmental sciences, many sought jobs with teaching components as well.

This spring, a group of JMU seniors built eight 250-pound garden beds for Keister students in high winds and freezing rain so they would be ready for planting season, Goodall said.

Senior Clare Parkinson, 21, said it’s important for students to connect with nature.

“Usually in their science classes they’ll learn about environments that are so far away, but very rarely do they get to go outside and just learn about what’s growing around them,” Parkinson said. “I think the garden provides the perfect opportunity to do that.”

Contact Ellie Potter at 574-6286 or epotter@dnronline.com

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