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Riverside Elementary’s Revolutionary Student Gardening 

“The Kiss of the Sun for Pardon,

The Song of the Birds for Mirth,

One is Nearer God’s Heart in a Garden,

Than Anywhere Else on Earth.”

– Dorothy Frances Gurney

By Tim Gardner

Students at Riverside Elementary School, located in the Ingalls Community in the southern section of Avery County, learn from a featured part of its curriculum that is one of the most innovative and needed programs any school could offer.

Riverside Elementary School’s mission of increasing food security amongst students, families, and the community at large is achieved through its gardening and outdoor learning program, a volunteer-based activity centered around growing fresh produce and donating it to those in need.

Riverside students sending off their champion pumpkin to the Avery Agriculture & Horticulture Fair in the fall of 2022 where they won first place. Photo submitted.

Food scarcity across America and around the globe is a real problem for people of all ages. In fact, many children get the majority of their meals from school. Most students in the Avery County School System rely on free or reduced priced lunches. And school meals may be the only meal some students in schools across America get to eat each weekday.

School age children are sometimes the ones in a family who suffer from food insecurity most, but they can often be instrumental in the solution. In the High Country, various programs, in addition to the one covered here, are available to help young people learn the skills they need to secure their own food. 

A Blueprint for Other Programs to Emulate

The program at Riverside Elementary School is truly revolutionary. Its staff and a long list of community partners founded the program to teach students how to grow and preserve their own food, learn about the region’s agrarian heritage, and help minimize food scarcity in the county.

Whitney Baird, Riverside’s principal and the Elementary Curriculum Director for the school district, wanted to further prioritize this program as soon as she became the school’s chief official in 2020.

Baird listed the primary goals of the program as: teaching students how to grow and preserve their own food, recognizing our culture and agrarian heritage, educating students and their families, building community partnerships, and getting students outside to create meaningful and hands-on instruction.

Student Marlye Laws shows off a marigold flower grown in the Riverside Gardens. Photo submitted.

She commented, “I am a native Avery Countian, and I grew up in Newland. My family grew up around the agriculture industry, and I grew up around gardening and planting a variety of plants including vegetables, flowers, and fruit trees. I love gardening about as much as any endeavor in which I’ve been involved, including at Riverside. And everyone who has been involved with our gardening and outdoor learning program in any capacity wants our students to appreciate and utilize our garden resources. Its long-term results are a much better food supply for students and their families. I believe when you educate students, you also educate their families.”

Dr. Dan Brigman, Avery County Schools Superintendent, gave the program an ultra-high rating: “We are very excited about the progress being made with the gardening program at Riverside Elementary School.  Our students, staff, and community members continue to enjoy planting and growing various fruits and vegetables. This vision has become a reality through the tremendous leadership and support of school principal, Ms. Whitney Baird.” 

“In addition, we are thankful for the generosity and support from all who have donated to the program in any measure, as well as the students and parents of Riverside Elementary School. This project is a true example of outstanding community support to benefit the current and future student populations.” 

Celebrating Four Years of Success

Riverside’s Gardening and Outdoor Learning Program was founded in 2019 when Dr. Jamie Johnson was the school’s principal. That’s when stakeholders were identified, grants and funds were obtained, county partnerships were formed, needed supplies were bought, and 14 raised garden beds and a 12 foot by 20 foot greenhouse were built on school grounds.

Baird said the program’s existence is from what she termed “tremendous assistance and generosity provided by many businesses, organizations, and individuals who have donated dollars and materials, as well as volunteering time and labor to help the program come to fruition and continue to expand.” Those include: Avery County Cooperative Extension Service, High Country Charitable Foundation, Avery County Board of Commissioners, Avery County Board of Education, Skyline/Skybest Communications, the Kiwanis Club of Banner Elk Foundation, Wheels Contracting, Derek and Erin Buchanan, Mike Nelson Paving, Lees-McRae College students, Camp Linn Haven, Quartz Corporation, and Riverside Parents and Teachers Organization staff.

Baird added that Riverside’s Gardening and Outdoor Learning Program has also received a coronavirus grant, as well as a GO Grant and a GO Outdoor Grant to help with its funding.

But as the principal declared, the true stars of the program are the approximately 150 Riverside students in pre-kindergarten through fifth grade who have participated in the gardening program during its two school years of outside learning classes. 

“Of course, the program is all about our students,” Baird noted. “They are the ones eager to learn all about growing vegetables and fruits. They put their hands in the dirt and dig holes in it to put seeds and plants, water what they planted and keep the plants weeded out as they grow to desired sizes. Then a few months later, the students harvest the vegetables and fruits they planted as they realize not only the satisfaction, but the excitement that comes from growing their own food, which they can also share with their families and others.”

Germination, the process by which an organism grows from a seed or spore, began for students in Kelly Goforth Byrd’s classes. She is the school’s instructor responsible for greenhouse growing and is a founder of Riverside’s gardening and outdoor learning program. 

Second grade students, Silas Thomas and Elijah Laws, work with Bill Hoffman to plant carrots, beets, and radishes in one of their raised beds. Photo submitted.

“I am so excited to have been a part in the whole process of bringing this (gardening and outdoor learning) project to Riverside Elementary,” Byrd stated. “As a classroom teacher, the hands-on experience gained from planting, caring for, and growing a wide variety of plants is very beneficial for our students and our community.”

Students worked with the Extension Service Agricultural and Natural Resources agent Bill Hoffman and former Extension Service Agent and 4-H Development Officer Bobbie Willard for planting classes.

Byrd described the greenhouse growing process in detail: “Part of our third grade curriculum is to understand how plants survive in their environment. As a result, our students have learned a few lessons over the past year. We planted a variety of seeds and placed them under grow lights in my classroom. Students were able to watch the plants as they began to sprout and grow under their care. They were then able to see how different types of plants have different leaves, along with learning to identify the parts of a plant. When the plants had grown enough to be transplanted to our garden beds, we all then saw how environmental conditions had an effect on the plants. Students found that if we plant too early in the season, some plants cannot withstand the cooler temperatures, while other plants continue to grow and produce vegetables. This was a great lesson for our students to use in life if they decide to plant their own gardens at home.” 

Byrd continued with her comments about the growing process: “With the help of our local Agricultural Extension Office we have started some planting classes this past school year. With these classes, our students have learned which vegetables would be best to plant near each other. They have also learned about what types of soil are best to plant in, and how the location of where the seed is planted can affect how soon a seed will sprout, or if the seed doesn’t sprout. I personally love the outdoors and this is such a wonderful way to help encourage our students to step outside and connect with nature.”

Future Goals of the Program

Baird said that several more grants were recently awarded to the school for the program and that their proceeds will be used for construction of an outdoor classroom facility and a barn with fencing.

She also noted several other goals that the Riverside faculty, students, parents, and herself want for the program, including: 

- Holding a farmers’ market ran by students 

- Creating a watering and harvesting schedule throughout the summer

- Establishing a kindergarten through second grade after school club 

- Starting a stakeholder group for members in the community to help progress and maintain the Riverside Outdoor Learning Initiative

Developing partnerships with Avery High School students in agriculture and horticulture classes and members of the Future Farmers Club to teach Riverside students

- Developing partnerships with Avery High School carpentry students to help build the next phases in Riverside’s gardening and livestock facilities, including a fence around the entire agricultural area and chicken coops for the baby chickens the second graders have already been raising

- Continuing partnerships with Avery County Cooperative Extension Office, with monthly planting classes starting in March each year

- Designing and building a barn to house a few small farm animals such as goats, rabbits, pigs, and chickens

- Building a brick or cement path to walk around each area of the agricultural project and around the fruit trees (inside the new fence)

- Adding an outdoor pavilion area which could serve as an outdoor classroom

- Creating a produce stand where students can sell the crops they grew to families in the car rider line

Adding additional apple trees to the orchard and transplant other fruit trees/bushes near the apple trees and benches

- Adding plaques and signs around the raised beds, greenhouse, and apple tree areas that are dedicated to all donors of the program

The crops grown by Riverside students so far include: broccoli, carrots, spinach, radishes, kale, lettuce, yellow squash, zucchini squash, cucumbers, cabbage, peppers, tomatoes, pole beans, red onions, yellow onions, green onions, sun flowers, pumpkins, basil, and dill. 

In fact, one of the pumpkins grown by Riverside students was entered in the Avery County Agricultural & Horticulture Fair, where it won first place as the largest pumpkin. 

This past spring, more garden beds were installed at Riverside for blueberry bushes, and space was set aside to plant apple trees.

Additionally, experiments were conducted with students also growing a few varieties of flowers, most notably marigolds.

The Avery Cooperative Extension Service has provided Riverside’s Gardening and Outdoor Learning Program a curriculum, media materials, and outdoor instruction from its agents.

Avery County Extension Service Director Jerry Moody has also been active in many facets of Riverside’s Gardening and Outdoor Learning Program, and he shared the following statement about it: “I think what is happening at Riverside with this program is wonderful and so needed. I’m most happy for the opportunity for myself, and especially for Bill and Bobbi, who have been most instrumental in the program in teaching the students all about how to grow vegetables, fruits, and even flowers. I know they are appreciative to get to share their expertise. Hopefully, those students will remember the lessons they have learned and further hone their interest in gardening. The students are learning to appreciate what encompasses growing vegetables, fruits, and flowers. And perhaps they will develop such a passion for it that it will continue into their adulthoods and be replicated.”

“I really enjoy seeing the students eager to participate in planting a garden,” added Hoffman, who works with Avery County’s Extension Service through North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University Cooperative Extension.

The 4-H Program is based on experiential or hands-on learning opportunities for youth that are then paired with caring adults. Based on feedback from the schools, parents, and youth, the Avery County 4-H Program developed the idea of starting a Homesteader Club for children that would incorporate various self-sufficient or basic life skills. Many Riverside students are particularly active in the 4-H Homesteader Club, an after-school program in which they learn additional skills such as food preservation, composting, producing milk products like cheese and butter, basic outdoor survival skills like first aid, inoculating mushroom logs, fishing, caring for livestock and other animals and in various other fields.

 4-H Development Officer Willard remarked: “The list of life skills is endless! In a nutshell … youth are learning about living a self-sufficient lifestyle, being a responsible citizen, how to balance work and play, living closer to nature, and things of those sorts. Long-term, youth are gaining a true sense of self-worth, pride, security, and environmental consciousness. It’s also a real joy to observe youth and families bonding on a shared project or topic such as gardening. The Riverside Gardening and Outdoor Learning and the 4-H Homesteader programs are adaptable models that we hope to have in all other schools in Avery County.”

Phoebe Fisher, fifth grade teacher at Riverside echoed similar comments about the program and the needs it serves: “I love that the outdoor initiative at Riverside can help our community. My grandfather, Jack Buchanan, was the first principal at Riverside Elementary where our current school is located, and his vision was to help the community, be there for families, and love the community well. I am so thankful to be involved in the continuation of Riverside’s vision for the community.”  

“It is vital that we teach our children how to grow not only their own food, but how to grow enough to help the community members who are in need of such help. The issue of food insecurity highly impacts students and children, so if we can teach students at a young age how to be sufficient in this regard, we are getting to the root of the issue. Not only is it fun for the students to grow food in our raised beds, from planting to watering, it is a life skill that is invaluable. I am so thankful to have such an amazing work family at Riverside, each of whom holds the same values at such high importance. The long term results are the true vision that Riverside has always stood for.”

As part of the program, students learn how to grow and preserve their own food. Photo submitted.

“All the work in our program has been through a total team effort,” Baird proclaimed. “It has been a great collaboration from our community, parents, staff, and donors to make this initiative happen. It may have started out as a dream, but dreams come true, and our program’s operation is proof. Myself and everyone else involved in it continues to be amazed at the support and dedication so many put into it. Aligning individual expectations and goals into a shared vision is the foundation to our gardening and outdoor learning program.  And I’m so thankful for, and grateful to, everyone who has helped play a factor in it.”

More information about Riverside’s Gardening and Outdoor learning Program may be obtained on its Facebook page (ACSRiversideElementarySchool) and on the Avery County School’s website (averyschools.net). Those interested in volunteering, donating building materials, or making financial gifts to the Riverside Outdoor Learning Fund, should call the school at (828) 737-5600.