Maria Garcia leads Napa Valley Language Academy’s garden program with the zest of a woman who loves getting her hands dirty.
The appeal, Garcia says, is no mystery. It’s all about connecting students with nature and supporting the school in her own way.
Garcia, of Napa, said she developed a green thumb as a child, while working on a family farm in Indaparapeo, in the Mexican state of Michoacan.
“When (I) lived in Mexico, father had a farm. When I was a child, I went with my father to work in the field,” said Garcia.
Although her father has since passed away, Garcia carries on her family’s love of the land and planting because she says working with earth is nothing less than invigorating.
The family farm, she said, yielded vegetables including zucchini and corn. Today, Garcia trades these for a wintertime bounty of cabbages, white onions, radishes and persimmons at the academy’s garden, where students raise and taste-test the fruits of their own labor.
The academy’s garden club, she said, is 14 students strong and usually meets twice a week after school near the campus garden.
After giving plants in the school’s greenhouse a drink on a recent Wednesday, club members Alejandro Garcia and Ivan Ortiz, both 9, planted tulip bulbs alongside Garcia. Part of a trowel-wielding student group, the pair alternately chattered and dug in their patch near the front of the campus.
Daniel Arroyo, a fourth-grader, said working under Garcia’s leadership in the after-school garden club has its perks, including “that we all work as a team and plant lots of new stuff each week.”
Besides, being a member means he can eat his own school-grown radishes, he said.
Garcia’s granddaughter, Nadia Garcia, 7, said she likes learning new things while reaping the rewards of her hard work — in this case, crunchy celery, radishes and lettuce.
The group has even earned a few bucks by selling their own flowers and fresh veggies at the school. Business was especially good just before Halloween, when club members sold scores of pumpkins.
Although Maria Garcia began leading the garden club one year ago, she joins her husband, Jose Luis-Garcia, for additional hours each week to beautify the campus.
The Garcias, both 54, put themselves in charge of campus landscaping at the school back in 2006. Evidence of their work — a lovely rose garden and walls of daisy bushes — covers the school’s grounds. Sometimes with grandchildren in tow, the couple volunteer at the campus once or twice a week, year-round, according to Lori Piombo, who coordinates the garden club and other after-school classes.
The pair’s grandchildren, Alexis, 9, Nadia, 7 and Anthony, 5, attend the academy, she said, and often pitch in to help keep the campus beautiful. A grandson who attends Harvest Middle School, Jaime Garcia, also plays a part in the family effort.
For his part, Luis-Garcia often lends a hand after a day’s work at Chardonnay Golf Club, where he has worked as a mechanic for 16 years.
Keeping the campus looking great takes a lot of work, but Garcia said it’s all worth it when she gets appreciative hugs or kind words from students.
“I am happy when I hear a child say thank you. … I’m happy when the children are happy,” she said.
For her part, Piombo says Garcia “has a true green thumb.”
If you spend some time with her, you’ll note that one of Garcia’s mottos is “don’t buy.” Putting her talents to work, Garcia said she uses cuttings to generate new plants in lieu of making trips to the nursery.
Some cuttings are even transplants from her home garden. Garcia said her home is dotted with pear, peach and lemon trees. When it comes to her flowers, it’s all about the roses and violets, the offspring of which are evident on campus.
Academy Principal Deb Wallace said the Garcias are doing more than raising vegetables. They are helping to raise children.
“Maria and Jose are grandparents and they have a talent of making things beautiful and want to share that with the students,” Wallace said.
The Garcias, she said, are “teaching students to respect our school and where they learn.”