Volunteers at Westminster Elementary Garden in Venice California where fruit trees have become part of the curriculum.

Volunteers at Westminster Elementary Garden in Venice, California where fruit trees have become part of the curriculum.

Master Gardeners bring garden and orchard to California school

For a place that now boasts six thousand square feet of garden space with California woodlands, various types of citrus, apple, plum and fig trees (among others), a one thousand square foot kindergarten garden with raised beds for planting, and a team featuring four Master Gardeners and three community volunteers, W.E. Garden certainly had humble origins.

Nine years ago, Nora Dvosin and Nancy Giffin had a goal. They had just completed a Master Gardener program and sought to begin a school gardening initiative. At the time, Westminster Avenue Elementary in Venice, California, had an after-school gardening program that could only accommodate a small number of students, but there was desire for a school-wide program. Westminster Elementary’s principal agreed to let Dvosin and Giffin undertake this project. “I don’t think then that we had any idea how the garden would grow to be what it is today,” Dvosin says, fittingly. “Although even then, we did have big dreams.”

Volunteers caring for the fruit trees in the WE School Garden in Venice, California

Actress Rosario Dawson planting Fuji apples with volunteers in the garden.

Fruit trees in the school curriculum

W.E. (Westminster Elementary) Garden is primarily an organic vegetable garden, however, it also features several beautiful fruit trees. Various types of trees have been planted throughout the garden, which not only beautify the space, but also provide shade to the students of Westminster Elementary. Its education program is extensive, with lessons integrated into the school curricula and the use of outdoor classrooms. W.E. Garden is partnered with the Nature Conservancy and is implementing their new program, Nature Works Everywhere, to connect garden activities with the course curriculum.

Over the course of one school year, each student spends six weeks in the garden. In these six weeks, students learn the entire “seed-to-table” process of growing organic food. Most of the lessons concern W.E.’s edible organic garden, and also focus on nutritional information. All of the tree care – weeding, mulching, feeding, watering, and harvesting fruits – is done by the students.

Students are even responsible for painting the tree trunks to protect them from pests and sun damage (more information about that in UrbanFruitTree.com’s “Preventing Pests and Disease Workshop“), an important aspect of growth in Southern California where the weather is warm and trees are liable to be damaged during the dormant months. The fifth grade class gets special lessons from local chef Joe Miller, who comes once a month to cook with them. He aims to use fruits and vegetables harvested by the students in his cooking. In one of W.E.’s most successful projects, the students are able to grow wheat from seed and harvest it. They thresh and grind it into flour, which Miller then bakes into bread.

Fruit trees, organic sprays, and combatting pests and disease

W.E. Garden has a wide range of fruit trees and several varieties, including:

  • Five citrus trees, including: Cara Cara orange, blood orange, and pink lemonade lemon
  • Two plum trees: Santa Rose and Burgundy
  • Three apricot trees: Glenkist and Blenheim
  • Six apple trees, including: Gala, Gordon, Granny Smith, Fuji and Red Skinned Fuji
  • One large fig tree
  • One dwarf pomegranate tree and
  • One Fuyu persimmon tree

One of the main problems that garden volunteers face is fruit tree pest and disease problems.  That’s where adult volunteers come in to help, and complete larger tasks that the students can’t do themselves. Each month, parents, teachers and community volunteers gather for Saturday workdays when they spray and feed the trees. Fruit trees are sprayed with safer garden fungicide, liquid copper fungicide, and horticultural oil. As you know from UrbanFruitTree.com’s Pest and Disease workshop, this must be done at the appropriate time and in the appropriate way in order to be safe for the trees and for the volunteers. W.E. Garden also invites a fruit specialist and fellow Master Gardener once a year to help prune the fruit trees. Occasional tree care classes are hosted in the garden, taught by a local arborist.

School Children from Westminster Elementary School in Venice California in the school garden.

Students from Westminster Elementary in the school garden.

A fruit tree is not grown overnight 

W.E. Garden has made great strides since its beginning, but it has yet to finish expanding. The Master Plan, drawn by Venice architect Lewin Wertheimer, includes a reading garden, an urban forest of trees and shrubs native to California, a Native American garden, and a new one thousand square foot garden for kindergarten students.

What W.E. Garden has accomplished has even greater significance than the planting and maintaining of fruits and vegetables. A fruit tree is not grown overnight. It takes time, much like a gardener developing their skills. Westminster Elementary has taken this into account and sets its students on a path of knowledge, awareness and success early in their lives. By involving the school in the growth of a garden, students have the opportunity to form a skill set for this type of work as well as an appreciation for nature.

Who knows? Years from now, these students may become Master Gardeners themselves, ready to take on an ambitious project like the one that eventually became the Westminster Elementary Garden.

Interested in ways to integrate fruit trees into your school’s curriculum? Learn how with “Understanding Orchards: A curriculum guide to teach students aged 12 to 17 how fruit grows”.

Want to learn how to establish an orchard in your school, local park or in your community? School we will put up a workshop “How to Start a Community Orchard” on www.urbanfruittree.com. To be notified when it is online and for fruit tree growing hints and news, sign up for our monthly newsletter here

Dara Poizner is the Communications Intern for Orchard People Fruit Tree Consulting and Education in Toronto and a contributor to UrbanFruitTree.com Online Education. She is also a high school graduate who will soon be specializing in English studies at the University of Guelph. Her goal is to inform and entertain through her writing.