By Caroline Blackmon
Muddy ground and exposed irrigation currently make up Harrington Waddell Elementary School’s Roots and Shoots Intergenerational Garden. By March, the school hopes that there will once again be the sounds of students learning lessons and planting vegetables outside.
The original garden was founded in the spring of 1995 by Molly and Dirck Brown, in what they saw as an effort to bring together two generations that so rarely interact: children and older residents.
Waddell Principal Tim Martino said that the name of the garden itself is important to its history.
“The ‘roots’ are the volunteers who help craft and build the garden,” he said, “and the ‘shoots’ are the kids who work with them.”
Waddell teacher Sue Shultis has been involved with the garden since the fall of 1995, when her husband became the Navy ROTC executive officer at Virginia Military Institute. Shultis said that part of the reason they decided to live in the city of Lexington was that she wanted their children to go to an elementary school with a garden.
“They actually get to go outside and learn about insects and pollination firsthand,” Shultis said. “I like kids to be outside in nature.”
Shultis teaches reading skills to students from kindergarten through third grade. Because she is so closely involved with the students, she said she sees the effect the garden has on their well-being and learning.
Even the summer school students get to participate. About 40 students are at Waddell for a month during the summer, and they make use of that time with the garden.
“The stuff is ready to pick, and so [they] get to harvest and weed,” Shultis said.
Shultis said that she can sense excitement among the children even now when there’s still so much construction to do on the new garden.
“I saw a boy standing at one of the windows looking out at the garden construction and he said, ‘I’m definitely coming to summer school.’”
Because of the significance the garden has for the school and the Lexington community, Martino said the designers of the new school wanted to make sure to include it in plans for the newly built Waddell, which opened last October.
“It’s always been in the back of our minds that, when we did get back to our home and our new school, this would be something that would be on the forefront,” Martino said.
Jim Hentz, a former member of the Lexington City School Board, lives across the street from Waddell. The garden has been a part of his family’s life for years.
“There was always beauty in the diversity of its gardens,” he said. “It awakens us to the possibilities of our own imaginations.”
Since the garden has been torn up for construction of the new Waddell, Hentz said in an email interview that he has missed relaxing in the garden and walking his dog, Jack, around it.
“It is a special place,” he said. “Seeing the new garden rising from the ashes of the old can change my mood.”
With the new garden come new opportunities for classroom topics. The Waddell Steering Committee, which shapes course curricula and manages donations, met last month to plan lessons that connect Roots and Shoots to the classroom.
“We’re thinking about getting a pollinator garden,” said Shultis, the coordinator between the teachers and the steering committee. “We would have things like milkweed that attracts monarch butterflies and other [plants] that attract bees, and other things that pollinate.”
Roots and Shoots construction started just a few months ago, but Martino said that the garden has made leaps and bounds in its development.
“Our volunteers are fantastic, and they really make sure that it’s going to be a great part of our school,” he said.
Martino said every part of the garden is somehow related to some part of the curriculum at Waddell.
“It’s really a big source of pride in our community for our school,” he said.
Each grade level has its own section of the garden that is tailored to what they’re learning, Martino said.
“They also go into the classrooms and do different projects, and it really brings a sense of excitement to our kids – the way that it’s content-related,” he said.
Shultis said that the school staff and volunteers really try to integrate all subjects, including creative writing and poetry, music and social studies, because that’s how the Browns designed the garden. Some teachers even let their classes eat lunch in the garden to feel more connected to nature.
“You can teach any subject in the garden,” Shultis said. “We think of it as a classroom.”