Students at work at the La Colina School Garden | Credit: Courtesy

The lunch bell sounds at La Colina Junior High School and students start filing out of class. They take up their usual positions in the echoey cafeteria and around the quad, but a handful make their way to the school’s new garden. Then a few more arrive. Then a few more. 

Before long, two dozen students are meandering up and down vegetable rows and taking seats on wood rounds in the shade of a flowering mulberry tree. Bees and hummingbirds buzz overhead. A hose trickles nearby. Everyone seems to breathe a little easier.

“The emotional health aspect of the garden can’t be overstated,” said teacher Maureen Granger, who last year, alongside volunteer parents and the environmental education and arts nonprofit Explore Ecology, helped transform a patch of dirt in a far corner of campus into the lush space of respite it is today.

“School gardens have been shown to reduce stress and anxiety, which a lot of our students are experiencing at higher levels since the pandemic,” Granger said. Theo, an 8th-grader, agreed. “It’s calm and peaceful here,” he said.

But the school garden ― one of 32 managed by Explore Ecology in seven districts across Santa Barbara County ― is much more than a hangout. A whole lot of learning happens here, too. Of La Colina’s 41 teachers, 29 use the garden in their curriculum, from demonstrating Fibonacci spirals in succulents to highlighting the “three sisters” crops grown by the Chumash to reading nature sonnets in a setting in which they were written. “There are so many ways to integrate the garden with what’s going on in the classroom,” said Granger. “The possibilities are endless.”

The La Colina students sell their produce at a school farmer’s market | Credit: Courtesy

And, of course, there are all the lessons offered in biology and horticulture. Theo talked about the permaculture practice of “tree guilds” as we walked toward a static compost pile growing mycelium and a trellis hanging with fava beans. “Try one,” he said. “Good, right?” 

Though it’s almost entirely student-run, parent volunteer Kristy Manning helps oversee La Colina’s farmers’ market that now regularly offers a bounty of free, organic produce straight from the garden. “We really want to connect students with their food,” said Manning. Kids bring home vegetables they grew for dinner, including chard, peas, tomatoes, fennel, beets, bok choy, corn, broccoli, and more. The fruit trees they tend provide tangerines, pears, persimmons, kumquats, and avocados. Flowers they planted from seed make for arrangements and gifts.

Bennett Rock with Explore Ecology is the garden’s main educator and steward. He takes a gentle approach to gardening, mostly observing with students what’s happening on the ground and making small corrections as needed. When they do have to remove a plant, instead of yanking it out, they cut it back so its roots can be reabsorbed. They look at the big picture of their little environment, Rock explained, and discuss topics like native pollinators and carbon sequestration. “Even weeds have purpose.” 

As much as Rock and the team have accomplished in two short years, they have even more plans for the near future. They want to turn an old lath house, freshly rehabbed with grant funding, into a home for a culinary arts program. Chickens could someday accompany the vermicomposting now taking place, the worms fed with scraps from the cafeteria, and their new plexiglass greenhouse will start producing more and more sprouts for Explore Ecology’s other school gardens.

Over the summer, Rock will maintain things with backup from students, their families, and staff. Recent graduates like Theo can also put the work time toward their high school community service hours. “It’s been inspiring to see the community spend their free time in the garden,” Rock said. “It uplifts everyone.”

Radishes and lettuces are among the many things grown in the garden | Credit: Courtesy


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