By MARINA WATERS
When you step through the back door of Betty Jo Dempsey’s second grade classroom at Jonesborough Elementary School, you’ll find students curiously peaking over healthy leaves and stems to get a look at the latest harvest of zucchini, beans, carrots and tomatoes. And around this time of year, the harvest provides enough fruits and vegetables for each student to happily tote at least one homegrown crop back to the classroom, with pride in his or her freshly picked item also in tow.
Dempsey has cultivated a garden behind her classroom for eight years and has seen a plethora of fruits and vegetables shuttled from the garden to the table sitting in the back of the classroom for all to see the latest pickings. She said her longing to step outside of the classroom and her deep love for plants first made her pick up her gardening gloves.
“I got the idea for a garden from being a student with a classroom that had windows,” Dempsey said with a laugh — meanwhile her students anxiously await their journey to the beloved garden. “I’ve just always been interested in plants. I just think it’s a miracle you can plant one little teeny seed and you can get something that’s got a gazillion seeds in it.”
Dempsey started the garden thanks to a grant she received from Tennessee Farm Bureau’s “Ag in the Classroom” initiative to provide teachers with resources for similar outdoor projects in order to educate students on agriculture. This summer, Dempsey received a $250 grant with the Farm Bureau for on-going garden needs. Dempsey said that grant would be used to put fresh soil in the raised-bed garden area.
Grants haven’t been the only thing keeping this garden alive; students have put in work recently by planting, weeding and watering the garden in order for it to thrive.
“I’ve involved the kids as much as I can,” Dempsey said. “It’s such a learning experience, too. It just involves so many life skills and it gets them hands-on with everyday things and a real garden.”
It’s also cultivated a love for stepping outside of the classroom and rolling up those sleeves — which is something one student, Lucas Verble, said he also practices at home by caring for his Tommy Toe Tomato plant.
“You need to get some plant food,” Verble suggested to Dempsey. “Because plant food, they just help them grow. I have a Tommy Toe plant. I put plant food in mine and in a week it got taller than me.”
Though the kids are enamored with selecting a homegrown good to shuttle back to the classroom, they’ve also gotten to brush up on their vocabulary by spending time at the garden.
“At the end of May, we had to cultivate and we learned the word ‘harrowing’. So it’s vocabulary-building. They also made water jugs to help water it from old milk cartons — so they learned how heavy a gallon is,” Dempsey said with a chuckle.
The students walked back through the classroom door with enough fresh, leafy greens to fill the surface of the large table at the back of Dempsey’s classroom, but the Jonesborough teacher hopes to leave her students with more than just a robust, ripened tomato to appreciate.
“I think they need to know where their food comes from,” Dempsey said, standing next to the fresh crop of fruits and veggies from the class’s fresh picking. “I’m not going to say it’s a survival skill, but at least they know that they could grow their own food if they wanted to.”