Rock Creek garden blooming as nutritional asset, teaching tool

By: Gloria Young Home & Garden
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Volunteer Ella Rossitto appreciates students really digging in and she’s seeing a lot of that in Rock Creek Elementary School’s Life Lab garden and composting programs. “Our goal is to grow and promote the love and knowledge of gardening for the kids and really getting them excited about it,” Rossitto said recently. The 20-plot site is flourishing these days after several years of neglect due to shrinking budgets. “We’ve been harvesting broccoli,” said Rossitto, who is now retired after teaching at the school for 22 years. The garden was established in 1985 through a Life Lab grant from UC Santa Cruz. “Bill Van Nort, principal at that time, and some teachers were very instrumental in getting it going,” Rossitto said. “The community and everyone came together. Rock Creek was one of the gardens on the state map. In the original curriculum, we have a page devoted to us.” Through the early 1990s, there was a full time aide who worked there. But by 2000, the funding had run out. “There were a few teachers who kept it going,” she said. One of those was kindergarten teacher Becky Lopez-King, who got a service club involved to fix up the greenhouse. Then, efforts began in earnest to revive the whole garden. “In January of last year we started digging up the beds,” Rossitto said. “I really wanted to be part of growing food for the cafeteria — nutrition awareness, farm to fork. We got $100 from the (Parent Teacher Club) and bought some plants and grew a spring garden.” The volunteers and students started with potatoes and sugar peas in February. In March, they added lettuce and radishes and in April they planted a lot of flower seeds. “(We chose) things that would be ready by May because (the students) are out of school at the first of June,” she said. Since September, they’ve been growing lettuce, radishes and the broccoli. Getting the food from the garden onto students’ forks can take persuasion. Although the kids were really excited to have lettuce from the garden in the cafeteria salad bar, it wasn’t a big hit at first because so many were used to eating iceberg lettuce, Rossitto said. So, to get them acquainted with it, Rossitto suggested letting the students wash the lettuce and taste it in the garden. And that has worked. On the other hand, the radishes and broccoli have been very popular. “We had a beautiful crop (of broccoli),” Rossitto said. “The kids and I picked eight bunches and that is a hot item. They love broccoli with ranch dressing.” The students garden in small groups for weekly half-hour sessions. “They are really good workers,” Rossitto said. “They are digging, cultivating and pulling weeds. They’re good listeners and they love it.” A composting program goes hand and in hand with the garden. “While we’re gardening and when we pull weeds, the kids know the weeds go into the compost,” she said. Placer Nature Center composting program volunteer Richard Huntley also volunteers at Rock Creek, where he teaches students about the process. “We have a beautiful composting center,” Rossitto said. “He has it all labeled with directions.” Huntley composts food scraps from the cafeteria and after the first of the year, hopes to get students involved in composting scraps from their lunch trays. The garden receives attention almost on a year-round basis. Lopez-King tended a plot through the summer for the food closet. “Richard and the Master Gardeners are awesome,” Lopez-King said in an e-mail. “They work with my kindergarteners in the garden planting, and we harvest our vegetables for the Interfaith Food Closet. They come into the classroom and give lessons on plants and they teach them songs. My class looks forward to Thursdays. They are already aware of the day and time when the gardeners are to visit. “It is a bonus to see our garden thriving once again. … All extra veggies that students don’t use go to the food closet continually. It’s a win! win! For the students as well as the community!” Rossitto has another $100 from the PTC to purchase more seeds and garden supplies. She’s also applying for grants. The garden needs a drip system, she said. For the spring planting season, she hopes to add carrots. “We’ll do the radishes because they grow so fast and they’re big seeds the kids can handle,” she said. Other volunteers who have contributed significantly to keeping the garden in bloom are Nancy and Warren Tellefson, Elizabeth Coulter and Julie Boorinakis. “Nancy (Tellefson) was a teacher at Rock Creek and (was) a long time in the district,” Rossitto said. “She and her husband fell in love with the garden and wanted to get it going. She got a grant for a big new chain link fence. They’ve worked non-stop out there, getting (rid of) the weeds and blackberries and doing all these projects.” What Rossitto enjoys most about volunteering for the garden is the opportunity to continue teaching. “I love teaching,” she said. “That’s what I’m passionate about. I’ve really enjoyed the children’s enthusiasm for gardening and the garden. I feel it is so important. I learned to love to garden from my grandmother. So did my husband. Those things make an impression. It is a lifelong skill.”