“It’s about finding value in our ecology, not just in the products we can create, but in the natural cycles that connect us to our surroundings,”
During a quiet moment of “sit time” in Life Learning Academy’s organic garden, Theresa, 16, straightened her glasses, held still, and began to notice the changes happening around her.
“A plant next to me is almost three feet tall. It wasn’t there before,” she jotted in her observation journal.
“I notice that there is just one orange flower growing in a strange place. It’s really pretty!”
The brief exercise — which requires students to sit quietly, observe, and reflect — is part of a robust Experiential Ecology curriculum at LLA designed to connect students with their natural surroundings through a series of interdisciplinary, hands-on learning experiences.
“It’s about finding value in our ecology, not just in the products we can create, but in the natural cycles that connect us to our surroundings,” explained Karuna Holm, who designed the ecology program, which includes core classes in Biology and Organic Gardening, as well as opportunities to practice rock climbing and sailing on the San Francisco Bay.
Through this process, Holm said, students begin to shed fear of the unfamiliar, and tune in to the ecological nuances that they may otherwise miss.
For Theresa, the jagged edges of the strawberry leaves, the fragrance of damp earth, even the gentle buzzing of the honey bees have, over time, become a source of calm.
“I notice that I’m more at peace outside,” she wrote, as the sun-drenched foliage rustled in the breeze.
From top: Theresa in her “sit spot” in the LLA Garden; Theresa, Tateyona, and Ecology teacher Karuna Holm label plant starts in the greenhouse; Ashanti carries strawberry plants to transport to market; Hennessy sells produce at the CUESA Farmer’s Market at Jack London Square. All photos by Justin Warren.
Despite brief moments of silent reflection, students at LLA quickly learn that Spring in the Organic Opportunities garden is peak season.
This year’s heavy rains brought an explosion of new growth, and the Garden and Biology students spent weeks cultivating herbs and plant starts, producing fruit and flowers, and nourishing a healthy bee hive to yield a sweet bounty at the Jack London Square Farmer’s Market.
Hennessy, 14, who enrolled at LLA this year, learned to overcome feeling shy in order to help the customers understand the story behind the market produce.
“The first time it was hard,” Hennessy said. “I had to crack that shell. I had to get out of my comfort zone.”
With a growing confidence, Hennessy entertained questions about the fresh herbs and produce from the school’s greenhouse, as well as the finished products that the she and the others hand-crafted: meyer lemon curd, jars of dried herbs, floral arrangements, and LLA’s signature Bee the Change organic honey, which students harvest from the school’s own bee boxes.
“I still get a little afraid of the bees,” Hennessy admitted, but credited Holm for helping her better understand the role of insects in the garden, and accept them as a non-threatening part of the ecosystem.
Abuzz with weekend customers, Hennessy and the other students sold much of what they brought to the CUESA Schoolyard to Market booth. The work they had done in the garden produced the highest total revenue to date during the market program — funds that cycle back into the school’s ability to fund the program.
“It’s good for the school. Kids get more experience to know how important the environment is,” Hennessy said.
From above: Theresa examines the new queen; Paul Koski (center) checks on the LLA colony; healthy bees on their honeycomb.
“That is so, so good!” May exclaimed on her first day at LLA.
The newest member of the Ecology program could hardly believe her eyes, or her taste buds. She enrolled just three days prior to the Farmers Market, and had just tasted the season’s first ripe strawberry, fresh from the vine.
But the fun was only beginning.
May and the garden students had come not for the spring’s first fruit, but to plant a seed. A large, buzzing seed.
The LLA beehive needed a new queen, and May had arrived on the same day as the royal insect. With help from SF Bee Association volunteer Paul Koski, Holm, May, and the LLA garden class opened the bee box, and introduced the new queen. They examined the hive for signs of distress, but found none.
“I really loved working with the bees,” she explained, adding “I got to hold a drone, because those male bees don’t have a stinger.”
At her new school, in a garden full of bees, May found that the closer she got, the more comfortable she became.
Top: A strawberry ripens in the LLA garden. Above: Hennessy’s homemade planter box containing strawberry starts she earned working in the LLA garden (Photo: Hennessy).
Between classes, Hennessy dropped by her Ecology teacher’s office.
“Look,” Hennessy said to Holm. “I made these.”
She showed Holm a photo of a planter box she made from scrap wood at home to contain the three small strawberry plants that Holm had recently given her to take home.
“That’s awesome!” Holm remarked. “They should do well!”
Hennessy shared that they were additions to an active home garden, in which her uncle grows citrus, apricot, apple, and pomegranate.
She had asked Holm if she could buy the young plants, but Holm gave her a few to pot.
“She said she could give us one thing to bring home. I’ve been wanting to grow strawberries.”
With salvaged boards, extra potting soil, and some guidance from Holm, Hennessy sent a future harvest skyward.
Top: Dashane’e and May examine the unusual garden structures at AT&T Park. Above: Jabari and May prepare food from the Giants Garden. Photos: Karuna Holm.
Before her first week finished, May traveled with classmates to AT&T Park, where, she discovered, a major league home run can land in an organic raised planter bed.
During the busy week of prep for the Farmer’s Market, a small group of ecology students visited the unusual right field garden built by the San Francisco Giants to explore their garden system, sample fruits, and participate in a true farm-to-table experience.
For May, it was her second new garden in as many days.
“The number one thing that caught my eye was the blueberries,” she said, adding that she enjoyed many straight from the vine. “They almost ran out!” she added, grinning.
With fruit samples as appetizers, May and the others were invited to harvest fresh vegetables and herbs, and bake a pizza of their own design.
“The most fun thing was being able to make the food,” she explained, after her visit to the outfield. “I felt really happy because I made this really good salad that I could not get enough of.”
From left: Holm, Hennessy, Brooke, and Mauriciana staff the CUESA Schoolyard to Market booth at Jack London Square in Oakland.
The baseball season will stretch into October, long after Hennessy, May, and Theresa return to campus in the fall. By then, as much will have changed in LLA’s garden as for the students who tend to it.
With the greens faded, fruit ripened, and a summer’s worth of nectar collected, Organic Opportunities students will return to campus with stories of work and adventure. They will prune the overgrowth, rake away last semester’s memories, and prepare the garden for the students who will ensure that the seasonal cycle continues.
As Fall crackles underfoot, a new group of Experiential Ecology students will set off to find their first sit spot, sharing stories of summer until it’s time to observe quietly, and notice, perhaps, that there are opportunities for growth all around them.
Top: Beet tops mature in LLA’s garden. Above: Strawberries ripen in a raised bed, and a second planter box awaits new growth.