By Marie T. Culver, Teacher at Seatack Elementary School, Virginia Beach City Public Schools
Local students, teachers, parents, and community members armed with shovels, rakes, wheelbarrows, garden gloves, mulch, native plants, and rocks united together on a cloudy day in October for the common purpose of creating the first Ocean Friendly Garden in the state of Virginia. The garden is the newest addition to a series of gardens that surround the green campus at Seatack Elementary, An Achievable Dream Academy. The project evolved as a partnership between the school and the Surfrider Foundation Virginia Beach Chapter, a nonprofit organization dedicated to the protection and enjoyment of our world’s oceans, waves, and beaches. Ocean Friendly Gardens focus on CPR: conservation, permeability, and retention. The garden’s goal is to absorb as much water as possible and to use native plants that thrive in the local climate. Students, teachers, and parents from the community of Virginia Beach worked hand-in-hand with Surfrider Foundation to transform an overgrown area in front of the school beset by poor drainage, erosion issues, and flooding into a new learning garden. The result is a pesticide-free garden full of native plants and wildlife that promotes positive interaction and environmental stewardship within the local watershed to the entire community.
Ocean Friendly Gardens are unique in that they use organic gardening to promote cleaner coasts and oceans by preventing urban runoff. Each property is like a mini-watershed that applies the concept of CPR to revive local watersheds and the ocean. Environmental education is centered on conservation of water, wildlife, habitat, and energy; permeability of soil and hard surfaces; and retention of rainwater. Surfrider Foundation Virginia Beach Chapter decided to launch their Ocean Friendly Garden Program by finding an area to promote these environmental concepts. After working closely with Seatack on many environmental initiatives over the years, Christina Trapani, Surfrider Foundation Rise Above Plastics Coordinator, asked if the school was willing to install this type of garden. The answer was a resounding “Yes” and the rest is history.
A Surfrider Foundation chapter volunteer who is a horticulturalist at the Norfolk Botanical Garden offered guidance with garden design and plant selection, including native plants such as wax myrtle, black-eyed Susan, pink muhly grass, and turtlehead. The garden is complete with two rain barrels, native plants, rocks, gravel, mulch, ocean themed wind chimes, and a newly installed art sculpture created by the children. Educational signage is posted in the garden to educate the entire community, and students serve as docents and environmental leaders to others in neighboring schools to showcase CPR concepts. Following the installation of the garden at Seatack, Ocean Friendly Gardens began sprouting up at other local schools in the community. Ms. Trapani shared her feelings about the partnership: “We were thrilled to be able to work with Seatack Elementary AADA since this was our chapter’s first Ocean Friendly Garden in Virginia. This was a perfect partnership for this project because of Seatack’s close proximity to the ocean and the impressive array of local, edible, and organic educational gardens that were already in place, and most importantly the enthusiasm from Seatack’s school community of students, parents, and teachers.”
The new garden is a focal point for the school and has been integrated into the curriculum to educate students about watersheds, runoff, erosion, rain barrels, conservation, and the ocean. Fourth graders incorporate the garden into their ocean and watersheds units of study, viewing the garden as a watershed that supports biodiversity in the natural world. Students learn that these gardens showcase healthy functioning ecosystems and support wildlife and beneficial insects. Students use the newest garden daily in environmental education activities such as collecting qualitative and quantitative data, conserving natural resources, and making scientific observations about the wildlife that is attracted to the native garden. Robert Reynolds, a first grade teacher, observed the Little Sprouts environmental club recently working in the garden: “It is so wonderful to see our youngest students recognize that the native plants are found in their own community, and have a better understanding of how the plants are so essential with attracting wildlife. Also, I’ve noticed that the first graders have a better understanding of the commitment it takes to keep and enhance the garden, using the rain barrels each week to water the plants and to understand water conservation.”
Bringing lessons to life in nature helps students see what conservation looks like in our natural world. The Garden Breakfast Club, a team of 10 fifth grade boys that maintains the gardens each morning, noticed the positive changes in the landscape. There were fewer drainage issues and plants were thriving in an area that once was an eyesore. In addition, their use of organic gardening principles is helping prevent runoff from entering the neighboring ocean. The club has shared its positive findings with the city landscaping services that help maintain the school’s landscaping. Fifth grader Anjel Calderon, who was instrumental in creating the Ocean Friendly Garden, pointed out to them, “Our gardens are totally taken care of by all of the kids. These are OUR gardens.”
Seatack’s partnership with Surfrider Foundation goes beyond installation of the Ocean Friendly Garden, and serves as a source for ongoing service learning opportunities that engage and empower students to be lifelong learners and global citizens. For example, the first and fourth graders worked on a project-based learning unit with the Surfrider Foundation Reusable Bag Youth Program. The students were presented with information about the problem of plastics in our oceans and through a problem-based learning project, students researched oceans, marine animals, economics, and human impact to create the best solution to solve this problem. Students were also involved with a Solution to Ocean Pollution Summit to share their findings with community environmental experts in the field. The school’s Go Green Team participated in two beach clean-ups with Clean Virginia Waterways Coastal Clean-up to understand the ocean’s interdependence with the garden and how to keep our oceans healthy. In addition, data was collected by the students to add to the international database of collected marine debris.
Seatack’s Ocean Friendly Garden continues to grow with help from students and community members. Recently, third, fourth, and fifth graders worked with local ceramic artist Debra Chako to create the garden’s newest sculpture, Ocean Dance, to add to the natural beauty of the garden. The fifth graders also created ceramic, artistic fish from the local waters of Virginia to add additional educational features to the garden. The Ocean Dance sculpture was unveiled on Earth Day to the entire community along with a presentation and celebration of the Ocean Friendly Garden. Clearly, growing a greener and cleaner world with Ocean Friendly Gardens exemplifies how Seatack’s students are being empowered as environmental leaders in their community.
About the Author
Marie T. Culver has been a teacher for Virginia Beach City Public Schools for the past 28 years. She received her Bachelor of Science degree in Education from Indiana University of Pennsylvania and her Gifted Endorsement from the University of Virginia. For the past 12 years, Mrs. Culver has been a gifted resource specialist and currently teaches at Seatack Elementary, An Achievable Dream Academy, in Virginia Beach, Virginia. She is highly successful with grant writing and has been awarded grant projects to promote sustainability through environmental education with outdoor classroom gardens and environmental initiatives. She is the recipient of the 2016 Elizabeth Abernathy Hull Award presented by the Garden Club of America for furthering environmental education and inspiring children to appreciate the beauty and fragility of our planet.