The Symonds School, located just off of Park Avenue in Keene, NH, exemplifies the culmination of dedicated parents, faculty, staff, and students working to beautify the landscape and provide hands-on educational opportunities for all. A variety of garden beds surround the school grounds, located near entrances, fence lines and within the playground space. Among these garden plots, diverse annuals and perennials, large sections of sunflowers, and vegetables are scattered throughout.
In addition to the plants growing in these gardens, there is beautiful artwork that creates a sense of belonging, both to the community members that invest time in maintaining the gardens, and to the folks that simply enjoy the area. There are small huts built out of sticks with plants growing all around them where children play during recess, beautifully painted poles with wish flags flying in the wind, a hand-built patio, and shrubs with various bird species fluttering in and out of the branches.
These garden spaces not only provide great aesthetics to the school grounds; the benefits of this program unfurl for each student, every classroom, and then continue to extend to families, businesses and organizations throughout Cheshire County.
Four years ago, the playground area at Symonds Elementary consisted of dust, sand, and pavement. Parents, faculty, and staff came together and decided that this area needed to be more useful, more biologically diverse, and more conducive to learning.
Goals were established, grants were written, and the program began to take shape. A garden committee was formed and art was integrated into the program. Year after year, more and more garden plots sprouted around the school building.
Up and Running
Individuals, families, or classes can ‘adopt’ a portion of the garden and do whatever they would like with it, while following organic growing principles and using native species whenever possible. Two master gardeners that work at Symonds help with some of the planting, advising, and maintenance of the garden beds. An inspiring aspect of this program is that people not only maintain their garden spaces but purchase new items and really work to make these gardens dynamic. The program has been funded by a Fish and Game grant, along with donations and fundraisers. The PTA played a crucial role in helping get this program off the ground.
Along with the donation of funds, local businesses have contributed materials such as hoses, tools and compost. This program is zero cost to the district, which allows for a bit more flexibility.
“Our program is unique in that it is very community oriented and it feels like common space for people versus owned and regulated. There have not been issues with vandalism and it is not just science based,” said Susan Meehan, teacher at Symonds School.
Planning for the Future
The Garden Committee has combined with the Playground Committee to revise and develop goals including:
- grow more food in conjunction with the seasons
- develop a summer program that can help maintain the gardens
- coordinate with wellness education
- create more spaces for children and animals throughout the playground
Advice for Other Schools/Projects
Folks involved with the Symonds school gardens advise other start-up groups to:
- Look into garden clubs for plant donations and seek advice from master gardeners or your local extension service
- Involve your PTA!
- Community awareness about available garden space will help with maintenance and making the space available to more people.
- Have a clean up and planting day to get people engaged and excited about your project.
- The Fish and Game grant was a big help to the Symonds School, and having a focus other than just growing food has provided a lot of opportunities for classes, students, and families.