Teaching the Cycle of Life from Seed to Plant
The Lovett School is ahead of the curve compared to other sustainable garden school programs. It offers an immersive learning experience, where high school students learn botany and horticulture directly from the school garden, greenhouse and by traveling abroad to Siempre Verde, a pristine 825-acre cloud forest property and research center owned by the school in Ecuador.
Alex Reynolds is Lovett’s Siempre Verde program director, and a biology and botany teacher. He also runs the Upper School Garden Program. Upper School is the term used at Lovett to refer to grades nine to 12. Since 2007, numerous students have taken his advanced elective classes and have gained hands-on experience learning to cultivate plants through the science of plant nutrition and soil fertility. It is a college freshmen-level botany and horticulture hybrid course that grants college credits to students. The garden is incorporated into a year-round teaching application, allowing students to learn the anatomy, physiology and classification of plants. The program fosters agrarian skills, emphasizing biodiversity and the nurturing of natural resources.
Today’s garden started in 2009 as an initiative of Lovett Director of Sustainability Sandra Switzer along with a group of teachers who were looking for practical projects to assign their students. Between 2007 and 2009, Reynolds and his senior students were using a very small space to plant vegetables. Walking around the 100-acre campus, he stumbled upon school workers who were growing vegetables just for fun. Reynolds then proposed that his 30-plus students do most of the manual labor. They agreed and brought in truckloads of dirt to set up the hardscape and the permanent beds that are seen today at the garden. His timing was perfect; the school was promoting multiple sustainability projects: processing the cafeteria oil into biodiesel and composting in large scale the school’s waste, clippings and leaves.
When the garden’s produce is successful, it is used in the school cafeteria. The dishes proudly display a “Lovett Grown” plaque. Some years are not as fruitful, and the garden goes to weeds, but they go at it all over again. That’s also part of the learning process.
“I teach the kids that gardening is science and experimentation,” Reynolds says. “Every year is a new experiment.”
During the winter, plants are relocated from the garden to the greenhouse. It has been an invaluable resource where they can control the variables of nature regardless of seasonality. Reynolds teaches many techniques, such as cuttings, divisions, cloning and propagating, and grows collections from seeds like orchids, blueberries, coffee beans, lemons and Venus flytraps, to name a few. By the end of February, the class sows up to 5,000 seeds, from which an average of 1,500 can be sold.
The program goes beyond the garden, giving students the opportunity to get involved with the community during Earth Week. Lovett’s annual plant sale provides people with affordable, high-quality organic plants. Unsold seedlings get planted in the school garden.
Some students have fulfilled their Eagle Scout projects while contributing to the program: Emilio Ferrara created a vertical garden, Jonathan Wolle maintains a beehive, and William McDaniel built a chalkboard on wheels to be used during outdoor classes. There’s an upcoming project to build a toolshed.
As a college-prep school, Lovett’s priority is getting kids into good universities, but it is nice that their students can learn other useful skillsets along the way.
“One of the best things I’ve seen is when a high-school senior is handing a plant to an eighth-grader, and he realizes ‘This kid is not going to take care of this plant,’” Reynolds says. “They care about what they grow. To me that is special.”