A few years ago, the garden at Oak View Elementary School in Buellton was looking pretty sad, and it seemed to be spiraling ever further into decay.

“It was somewhat sustainable when it was started,” said parent Jeanette de Luca, noting it was one of a number of gardens started at schools around the county through a grant from the Orfalea Foundation.

But after a few seasons, no one took much of an interest in keeping up the garden located at the edge of the playground, and the ongoing drought didn’t help.

Plants died — the planter boxes were full of dead sunflowers. Bare soil emerged as groundcover dried up and blew away. Weeds took over the once fruitful flower beds.

“No one wanted to buy in (to caring for it) because it looked awful,” said de Luca, who majored in agricultural business at Cal Poly. “Having that ag background, it called to me. The garden could be an awesome outdoor classroom for students.”

Three years ago, de Luca began cleaning up the garden and looking for assistance, not just in labor but also funds and in-kind donations.

She was soon joined by Rosa Andrade, another parent who got involved when her son developed an interest in the garden, and the two became the volunteer co-chairs of the garden committee.

The Oak Valley PTSA wrapped the garden into its annual budget to help sustain its operation, but more was needed. De Luca and Andrade began pulling in assistance from seemingly every corner.

They secured a $5,000 grant from Lowe’s. Tractor Supply contributed $500, plus child-size gardening tools and native plants for an area of the garden that serves as a memorial to a former physical education teacher.

Farm Supply donated planting soil. Coastal Vineyard Care brought in a crew several weekends to work on the garden and provided an irrigation system.

“It never had a proper infrastructure,” de Luca explained, so volunteers dug trenches to install the irrigation lines.

Rebirth of the garden

Things were looking up for the garden, and still the help kept coming. Cal Coast Irrigation donated an irrigation timer, Marborg Industries hauled in bark and Valley Compost contributed compost.

Ranch Hands from Recovery Ranch filled all the planting boxes with soil and compost, spread the bark and finished up the irrigation system.

Suddenly, Oak Valley had a fully functioning garden again, a place students were eager to spend time and add their own flourishes — planting vegetables and decorating rocks and tree trunks.

But Andrade and de Luca didn’t stop. They kept improving it with innovative concepts, like the Sensory Path.

“That was Rosa’s idea,” de Luca said. “It’s got all kinds of things the kids can touch and feel — cork and bark and pebbles.”

It’s also got a lot of succulents that were donated by Native Sons Nursery in Arroyo Grande.

Hitching Post donated benches made of wine barrels, D.J. Dunn Construction donated wood for planter boxes that were assembled by parent volunteers and Neilsen Building Materials provided wood to renovate the picnic table. Art students from Jonata Middle School made a new sign.

Last year, the committee started a farmers market that’s held every quarter at the school. Some of the produce — Swiss chard and kale — comes from the garden; other items are donated by Tutti Frutti Farms, El Rancho Market and Albertsons.

Parents who can’t afford to pay are still welcome to shop at the market.

“No one is turned away,” de Luca said

Outdoor education

The garden now has its own resident educator — Max Feldman from Explore Ecology — who spends five hours a week working with students from kindergarten through third grade.

“I try to teach them about how each plant is a living thing and needs tender loving care, the same as a person,” explained Feldman, who moved to this area from Connecticut to take the job with Explore Ecology.

“I try to teach them that plants aren’t just something to look at from a distance but something that becomes part of them … the values of respecting the environment,” he said. “I think they really take to that. They have their own ideas on things, too.”

Feldman put the third-graders to work helping clean up the garden and putting the debris into the green waste.

“I don’t think giving kids a little bit of manual labor is a bad thing,” he added. “They get their hands dirty, feel the textures.”

Right now, he's got students creating prayer flags by decorating small strips of cloth with garden-related drawings.

“They’re called prayer flags but they’re not really religious,” he said. “It’s more of a spiritual thing. Some of the students want to do sports themes. One kid wanted to do a soccer drawing. I told him it was OK if he included the field.”

Feldman plans to string the flags across the garden where the students can walk under them, look up and see their creations.

Success story

If the results of all that effort are gauged by student interest, then the garden must be a big success, having extended its influence into the classrooms.

First-grade teacher Laurie Moore had her students conduct a science experiment “to see what plants need to grow.”

They germinated lima bean seeds under the same conditions except for one thing: One group of seeds was left in a sunny window; the other was shut up in a lightless closet.

After several days, the seeds in the window were growing strong and healthy. Then they checked the ones in the closet.

“We were surprised,” Moore said. “They were growing, but they were very yellow. So we put them in the window with the others.”

On Monday, Moore and her students were in the garden, half of them making prayer flags and half of them planting the lima beans. But when the groups switched tasks, all the beans had been planted.

The students who had worked on prayer flags began asking for things to plant, so Feldman found some seeds and put them to work. Before long, they announced a new discovery.

“We found a worm!” one of them yelled.

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“We found two!” another added.

“Can you tell me why it’s important to leave them here in the garden?” Feldman asked.

“They live here,” one student responded.

“Yes, they do,” Feldman said. “What else? Worms keep the soil healthy, and if the soil is healthy, the plants are healthy, and if the plants are healthy, we’ll be healthy.”

A trio of second-graders, including de Luca’s daughter, paid a visit during Free Garden Time, which allows students to freely explore in the garden rather than play on the playground.

“I like that you can plant seeds, and it’s just fun to play in,” Gracie said. “I like to come here on weekends because my mom comes here to water.”

Her friends had their own reasons.

“I like that you can smell stuff,” Sophia Alexander said. “It smells good. There’s stuff you can eat.

“I like it because it’s really beautiful,” said Scarlette Ripley.

They all liked making the flags, working in the flower beds and, of course, the bean teepee.

“I like going in it,” Sophia said.

The activities are constantly changing, and that may be what keeps the students so interested.

“Last year, they made mandalas with flowers and things they found in the garden,” Andrade said.

They also made stir-fry with veggies from the garden, and ate carrots they pulled up and washed on-site.

“At one point, I had the kids doing fairy houses,” Feldman added. “Each group had to find things in the garden they could use to make a house. It gave them building skills and an appreciation of what’s in the garden. Sticks were just sticks until they became walls. Rocks were just rocks until they became foundations.”

Andrade and de Luca are thrilled with the success of the garden, but now they worry about keeping it going. The annual cost is more than $5,000.

“We need funding to keep sustaining it year to year,” Andrade said. “Max is only here five hours a week. With more money, we could add more hours. He could be here doing more classes.”

The committee was recently turned down for one grant, but they’re now hoping to get a Whole Kids grant, and they want to do a fundraiser in the spring.

But they also hope someone will find the garden valuable enough to become a sponsor, which could keep it going year after year.

“Without the funds, we won’t be able to sustain it,” de Luca said.

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Mike