In Dubai, A Garden Cultivates Community
As strange as it might sound, this school, in this place, is making waves with a garden program that really has lots to boast about. Apart from the fact that every grade level (from K1 to grade 12) visits the garden at least once per year, it also is home for school organizations (Sustain Our World and Food Revolution among them) and a venue for a number of events as well. In fact, the garden is often frequented by a good number of visitors from our own community and from around the world.
The story goes back a few years to the new campus of the school: 2010. A small number of dedicated parents decided that it would make sense to reconnect with nature in an area so arid and so urban that few plants would naturally exist. At the time, parents led a service club and raised funds to set up a number of garden beds in an area provided by the school in the southeast corner of the campus. One end the garden sports a small shaded amphitheater used for both classes and visitors. Over the years, the garden has been adorned with a number of additions: blooming entrance archways, beautiful informational posters, welcoming signage, a small pergola and bubbling fountain at its center, a number of formal beds and a compost area running along the outer wall. It is home to a small weather station and a sensory garden, as well. Since its creation, the garden has proven to be so successful that a dedicated full-time Garden Coordinator position was created three years ago.
Sandy Carden ("in the garden") is the current Garden Coordinator, and her job is to ensure curricular connections in all class visits to the garden. If a visitor was to walk by - as they often do - they might see students roaming the beds studying the plants (and any insects they might be hosting), harvesting vegetables or herbs for the secondary school’s salad bar or following a recipe using produce from the garden. AP World History students pop over to study the Columbian exchange and learn how to make polenta and pomodoro sauce, using “New World” ingredients. Grade five students take measurements of the beds themselves to determine their volume for their math classes. Calculus students make bread and measure the exponential growth of the rising bread. K2 students plant carrot seeds for their upcoming farmer’s market.
To ensure that there are opportunities for interaction with the garden outside of class, several student organizations and activities are associated with the space, as well. One such organization is aptly named Sustain Our World (SOW for short). They are responsible for doing the bulk of the planting but also support the cyclical relationship between the the garden and the cafeteria. The organization has established a planting-to-plate program for the salad bar in the cafeteria and markets the program. In return, the cafeteria provides a good deal of the food waste that is composted in the garden.
To add a deeper connection to the garden, food choices, and the larger global issues, Sandy also runs a Food Revolution activity for the MS. Food Revolution students might start in the learning kitchen where they focus on a recipe to support appropriate nutritional habits. Once a recipe is identified, students head to the garden to harvest what they need and then return to the kitchen to prepare the food. All the while, Sandy takes advantage of the conversations related to natural -vs- processed foods and the benefits of appropriate food choices. Once the food is prepared - and happily consumed - food scraps will, of course, be put into compost. Again, cycles make connections stronger. On occasion, and depending on interest, one might see cleaning staff members joining the process as well!
But wait! There's more! Our school partakes in a number of Week Without Walls programs each year, with nearly all our MS and HS students heading to a variety of countries around the globe. The idea is to broaden their “critical consciousness” of the world and their place in it. The garden (and the kitchen) become a great point of reference for these travelers, as well. Case in point: In a recent trip to southern Nepal, students researched the country, its culture and geography, along with the requisite inquiry-driven discovery. To support the trip preparations, the participants visited the garden (along with a local market for the produce not available in the garden) and students helped prepare rice and dahl.This taught them the essential skills needed to prepare a dinner at their campsite for the tour operators. Our eighth grade WWW trip to South Africa includes a service component working with CSA’s in townships. In order to provide skilled labor to help support this Community Supported Agriculture project, students went to the garden to learn how to plant, transplant, seed save, and harvest compost.
The success of the garden and the versatility in Sandy’s approach to learning has meant that people are paying attention. Our composting program has expanded to families who often bring their food scraps to school. Different community groups often request the garden as a venue (in the winter months, that is) and both parents and teachers have meetings in the space as well. This is managed by having a shared Google calendar that is managed not only by our garden coordinator but the facilities coordinator, as well. Sometimes you'll see parents and their little children meandering through and looking at the garden, to touch and see the variety of leaves, flowers, etc. In addition, many of our staff are from India and Nepal, and they visit when the moringa trees grow their "drumsticks" as it's the main ingredient in many of their curries. The moringa is also used for cooking soup in the Indian subcontinent and here we use the leaves - very high in protein - to make smoothies with SOW’s bicycle blenders. And recently, the school guards have requested a garden bed of their own to plant Rayo (a type of mustard leaf) as they do not have garden spaces where they live.
What once started as a bit of experimental space has, over time, grown to a great community center. The motto of the garden is "cultivating community" and if one takes the time to follow the history of the garden at ASD, it would become obvious that it's just not just a tagline; it's a real demonstration of how a space can contribute to the building of a community in such positive ways!
By Sandy Carden (Garden Coordinator) & Laurence Myers (Service Learning Coordinator)