Students at two Bartow County schools didn't mind getting their hands dirty when they knew it would one day result in a crop of fresh fruit.
Last month, a group of volunteers at Kingston Elementary planted an orchard to rejuvenate the school's 20-year-old outdoor classroom while the MudSlingers garden club at South Central Middle planted an orchard to replace the one that was destroyed by construction crews.
"Keep Bartow Beautiful and Bartow County Extension Office often collaborate to fund, plant and support school and community gardens," KBB Executive Director Sheri Henshaw said. "We are happy to be a part of those outreach efforts this year. We also always seek ways to make these gardens as sustainable as possible through selection of plants, best planting practices, teacher and volunteer education and UGA's plant-care publications on each variety. If a garden is too difficult to manage, it won't be used and enjoyed fully by the students and faculty."
At Kingston, teachers, volunteers, Bartow County Master Gardeners and Bartow County Extension Coordinator Paul Pugliese armed themselves with shovels and added 10 blueberry bushes, six pawpaw trees, five persimmon trees and two fig trees to the fruit trees, blueberry bushes and bog plants that were planted last year in the woods next to the school.
About a dozen MudSlingers, with help from the Master Gardeners and Pugliese, planted two apple trees, two persimmon trees, two pawpaw trees, two fig trees and four blueberry bushes in the South Central orchard.
"The plants were chosen because they are low maintenance, which is important in a garden managed sporadically by volunteers," Henshaw said, noting they were purchased as part of a $900 state grant awarded to KBB and the extension office. "These plants are simple enough for kids and teachers to care for, also a requirement of the grant — a three-year maintenance program is part of the requirements for receiving the grant."
Besides being low maintenance, the blueberries, figs, native persimmons and pawpaws "all thrive here, practically caring for themselves, and should, given three years and some care, produce a crop of fruits that can be enjoyed by teachers and schoolchildren alike," Henshaw said.
"The pawpaws are unusual plants that have an interesting history," she said. "Hungry soldiers, runaway slaves in need of sustenance and poor sharecroppers had to share the ripe early-autumn pawpaw fruit with wildlife. The little-known fruit tastes somewhat like a banana mixed with a creamy custard."
Kingston Assistant Principal Dr. Zac Wilson said Pugliese chose the native plants for the orchard addition.
"It is the hope that these plants will naturally thrive and provide our students with opportunities to have hands-on learning experiences in a real-world environment," he said.
That was the same reason South Central chose apples, blueberries, pawpaws, persimmons and figs.
"These are all plants that do well in our area, and we wanted the students to see food grow," said Barbara Childers, sponsor of the MudSlingers. "We have also spent a lot of time studying pollinators and how they affect our food."
Wilson said the Kingston living classroom is an "amazing resource" that was created through a partnership with Anheuser-Busch and other community organizations.
"For years, it was a field-trip destination for other schools and hosted special learning events," he said. "Over time, shifts in school focus caused less use of the facility. We have realized a resource of this size needs constant upkeep to fully benefit the students and recommitted ourselves to its development."
An apple orchard originally was planted on the site in the mid-1990s, Wilson said, but "those plants were not in the correct habitat and did not survive."
"In the spring of 2017, we had our initial planting of native plants," he said. "We then added more this past February."
Henshaw added the school's campus is "blessed with an amazing resource" in its outdoor classroom, and Principal Philena Johnson and her staff "wisely determined to bring it back to life in manageable stages."
Childers said South Central planted an orchard about two years ago, but it was "mistakenly cut down" by construction workers.
The students and staff were happy to receive funding this year to plant another one.
"It turned out great," she said, noting club members will "definitely be adding more blueberry bushes" this school year. "We are really excited to have this opportunity."
As the weather gets warmer, students at both schools will begin planting vegetable gardens on their campuses.
The garden will teach students how to grow plants from seeds, identify plant parts, group plants into various categories, observe plant survival in different habitats, discuss plants as producers in the food chain and enable them to sample healthy foods and will allow teachers to integrate math, science and literacy skills to achieve the Georgia Standards of Excellence.
Wilson said Kingston's garden is being funded by a Bartow Education Foundation grant that was written by fifth-grade science/social studies teacher Heather Honea.
"Our current plan is for fourth- and fifth-grade students to plant and maintain the garden to provide a project-based learning format and real-world experiences that correspond with our state learning standards across subject areas," he said, noting students intend to grow cucumbers, lettuce, peppers, cauliflower, squash and tomatoes.
Due to state guidelines regarding food served in the cafeteria, the fruits and vegetables harvested from the orchard and garden won't be used in school lunches, but "students will have the opportunity to sample the 'fruits of their labor' in the classroom setting," Wilson added.
Childers said the MudSlingers planted lettuce and onions last week in the school garden, which will provide several educational opportunities for the sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders.
"We want to give the students the opportunity to grow their own food and help them to find ways to use what they grow," she said, noting the vegetables they're planting are being provided by the Master Gardeners. "Also, we want to teach them how to select a site for their garden, what is needed for a healthy garden and why these things are important."
She added the club is working with cafe manager Stephanie Prince and her staff on ways to use the vegetables and fruits from the garden and orchard in school lunches.
Using teacher grant money from the Bartow Education Foundation, Kingston also will be creating a pollinator/butterfly garden and worm farm over the next few weeks and setting up bluebird houses with a camera in the near future.
"These projects are interconnected and will help our students understand relationships in the natural world," Wilson said, noting he hopes to get all of them underway this spring. "Students can observe the plants grow and find the features that allow them to survive in Georgia habitats, as well as explain the food chain with producers and consumers. We are hoping to use the resources of the garden and living classroom to support the [Bartow County School System] STEM initiative and emphasizing life science."
Lesson plans centered around the worm farm will use the small ecosystem to highlight the importance of organic decomposition, the soil food web and the relationship between earthworms and ecological sustainability, according to a press release.
Based on their bluebird observations, students will develop their nonfiction writing skills and will "also create graphs, collect and analyze data and submit data to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology Nest Watch and Feeder Watch programs," Johnson said.
"These real-world applications are priceless,” she said.