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Season of Giving: The School Garden Doctor helps support garden-based education in Napa

From the Season of Giving: Profiles of Napa Valley nonprofits making a difference in our community series
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School gardens might seem like mundane patches of scattered green and brown to passers-by, or to those with little interest in gardening, if they even notice them.

But such gardens are abundant in educational opportunities, according to several Napa teachers who run them; they can be used to teach students about agriculture, nutrition, and a multitude of science subjects and other academic disciplines in alternative, tangible ways. 

“Any subject can use the school garden,” said Louann Talbert, a retired science teacher for the former River Middle School. “It’s a way to make the curriculum alive and relevant.”

School gardens bring plenty of other benefits beyond their potential to be used for teaching, the teachers added. For example, they can inspire awe, and help students connect with systems of nature. That all happens through engaging multiple senses — including touch and smell — that students don’t typically use much in a classroom setting. 

“One of my main goals when I was a school garden teacher was helping students understand the depth of their responsibility as stewards of the planet,” Talbert said. “When they’re out connecting with the soil, with the water, with the sunlight and with the air, they’re developing a respect for all life and a caring about taking care of our planet that is hugely important right now.”

Season of Giving

But starting a garden at a school can be a significant challenge. And even when one already exists at a school campus, it requires consistent maintenance. Teachers strapped for time, funding or know-how may swiftly give up after finding out all that’s needed to create a garden, the teachers said. 

In 2018, those barriers inspired science educator Carrie Strohl to start The School Garden Doctor, a Napa-based nonprofit dedicated to helping school garden and outdoor education programs grow and thrive.

Because of all the layers of challenge involved in starting a school garden, that support is greatly needed, according to Strohl. 

“Let's say you want to start a school garden,” Strohl said. “Do you have space on your campus? Do you have permission to use that space for that purpose? And there's lots of regulations for that. Do you have the know-how and the knowledge resources? Then, do you have access to the main things you need? The sun is abundant, but do you have water, do you have labor, do you have plants?” 

One way the organization is able to understand the needs of teachers is through funding the School Garden Learning Network, which Talbert — also a board member of The School Learning Doctor — founded in 2017 and continues to lead. The network largely consists of a group of school garden teachers who work together to support each other, according to Talbert.

Talbert noted that she's written several grants to help support members of the group with their school gardens. That's included paying for professional development from Life Lab — which trains teachers how to use school gardens — and offering it free to anyone who showed up, she said. It has also included hands-on help, such as installing irrigation systems.

“Teachers were out there on their own trying to figure out how to efficiently water their gardens,” Talbert said. “And so some of us who have expertise in setting up irrigation systems, we used some of our grant money to buy materials, and then I would go out and work with the teachers to set up a working irrigation system for them.”

Strohl said the School Garden Doctor is currently planning to again launch irrigation mini-grants, which add up to about $250 per site. Last year, the organization helped outfit gardens at three schools — New Technology High School, Napa Valley Language Academy and Snow Elementary School — with such systems, according to Strohl. 

The organization is also starting an annual Erin Soper Memorial Grant — named after a former Napa Valley Unified School District teacher who died of cancer in May — which this year will be a $500 award to a teacher who wants to learn how to implement garden-based learning, Strohl said.

Christie Wolf, a science teacher at New Tech, said she was inspired to start a school garden by Strohl several years ago, during a School Garden Network workshop she was invited to. Wolf said she had very little personal gardening experience at the time, but she had students over the years who’d expressed interest in outside learning or starting a school garden, and so she checked the workshop out. 

“Strohl was so inspiring and she just knew so much about all these plants, like everything,” Wolf said. “You’re surrounded by beauty first of all; just all of the senses are engaged. They had berries on the table for us to taste, there were seeds being shared, teachers were all chatty. It wasn’t very formal; it was just engaging with each other about this shared interest. And I was definitely hooked.”

Wolf noted that The School Garden Doctor has helped connect her with all sorts of needed materials and mentorship. It’s necessary to continuously commit to a garden for it to continue to exist, Wolf added, and Strohl has helped inspire that commitment, both in teachers and students.

Wolf said it was difficult to articulate a single way the school garden impacts the learning environment. But one value that she’s seen with the garden is that it fosters a back-and-forth connection with the outside, nature and the local land, she said. 

“So we’re not only just studying about things that exist somewhere, but we’re studying things that exist right here where we live and that we’re connected to,” Wolf said.

Wolf also stressed the mental health benefits the garden can bring. Julie Lovie, a science teacher at Valley Oak High School, said that’s been important as students returned to school, and the garden there has been a place for students to unwind. 

“Students have been through a lot,” Wolf said. “So have teachers. We’ve all been through a lot. And so having this sensory space where it’s like, oh, you smell the sage and you smell the rosemary and you can hear the music. You notice a bird perched up on the tree. I think it’s a really nice space for kids to just pause and slow down and reconnect with a slower pace of things during the otherwise busy school day.” 

Lovie noted that she and her students often connect to the greater world through the Valley Oak garden. They recently finished a unit on pollinators, and talked about monarch butterflies being put on the endangered species list earlier this year. So, Lovie said, she and the students planted a pollinator garden as part of the unit, and the Napa Resource Conservation District donated milkweed for that purpose. 

“There are many wonderful connections in our community and the School Garden Doctor is really good about helping us connect to those resources as well,” Lovie said. “... Having support for us is important because sometimes we do feel a little alone in our quest to save the world through gardening with our students.”

Personnel from the city of Napa's Parks and Recreation Department went out to Las Flores Park on Thursday to plant trees for an annual celebration of Arbor Day.

Season of Giving: Profiles of Napa Valley nonprofits making a difference in our community

Get to know some of the Napa County nonprofit organizations and their volunteers.

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Napa Wildlife Rescue cares for about 1,200 injured or orphaned birds and mammals annually, from skunks to hawks to foxes to song birds.

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Napa Valley's UpValley Family Centers marks its 23rd year of helping locals with everything from financial assistance to immigration. 

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The Napa Valley Register's Season of Giving series profiles Expressions of Hope, a Napa nonprofit working with families and children in need.

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The Napa County Bicycle Coalition wants you to feel safe biking or walking to destinations in the county — and is working to make this a reality.

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The nonprofit that opened Napa County's shelter for abused spouses and partners continues to widen its protective reach after more than four decades.

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Molly’s Angels is a nonprofit organization that was founded by Napa restaurant owner Molly Banz in 1999. What started as an idea to bring community members together is now an organization that provides several services including free transportation for seniors and people who are legally disabled, and other support services that help senior citizens live independently.

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Napa-based Moving Forward Towards Independence provides social, vocational and independent living skills — and a community — to neurodivergent adults.

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School gardens can offer much to students, according to Napa teachers who run them. But it can be difficult to start or maintain one. The School Garden Doctor seeks to mitigate those barriers. 

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Napa County's Mariposa and Bridging Brothers programs empower community youth across 10 local schools, and will expand to three more sites in January.

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These Napa dogs and their handlers work hard to provide smiles year-round.

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The Napa Community Animal Response Team was developed to protect animals during increasingly regular wildfires and other natural disasters.

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Napa Valley Farmworker Foundation provides classes that help farmworkers grow confidence and expand horizons

You can reach Edward Booth at 707-256-2213.

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