Students at the Santa Ynez Valley Charter School learn about gardening by tending to their iris patch.  | Credit: Courtesy

Using the garden as a classroom is certainly a welcome adaptation during the days of COVID. But this type of outdoor education has been a key curriculum component at Santa Ynez Valley Charter School since its founding in 2000, said Executive Director John Dewey.

Last year, the public charter school added a new Iris Garden to the mix, planting more than 120 unique irises. Each student in grades 3-8 chose and planted their own individual breed of the flower, complete with fun (and legit!) names like Rainbow Shadow, Milk in My Coffee, and Ice Sculpture. Tending these flowery plants and their showy flowers, students learn about planting, cultivating, harvesting, and composting, and teachers are able to incorporate lessons about the natural world, plant biology, ecology, and the environmental impact of humans on the planet.

The Iris Garden is the newest feature in an almost three-acre garden on the property, which is cared for exclusively by students and parents. In order to plant the irises, the team reclaimed a hillside and the 5th graders did the work to terrace it, using railroad ties and “other bits and bobs,” said Dewey. “We have also logged the names of each plant, who planted it, as well as a photo of their blooms.” 

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As students start to return to school, the new 3rd graders will plant their irises, and so will all the staff members — they might even “dig down” to 2nd graders. “It’s pretty exciting for the kids,” said Dewey. “They have ownership of it, and they get so excited when their iris blooms.”

Also in the works for this school year are a series of grade-level gardens, which the students take care of and choose the themes for. The first gardens had a native plant theme and a butterfly garden focus, with flowering plants that attract insects and butterflies.

Santa Ynez Valley Charter School also recently became an Ocean Guardian School, a program sponsored by NOAA for schools to do projects that foster the protection of watersheds and the ocean. They are using the funds to separate food waste from trash and turn it into compost for the gardens.

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