G is for the garden that grows

2nd-graders at St. John's Parish Day School put in plants for letters of the alphabet


The idea for the alphabet garden at St. John's Parish Day School in Ellicott City really began with the meadow that pupils had created three years earlier.

The children were upset that sand from the nearby sandbox would escape the playground when it rained and run across a driveway and into the soil of the meadow, damaging the plants that had been growing there.

So last year, the second-graders at the private school took action. In science class, they came up with the idea of positioning a screen along the playground fence to hold in the sand. Because the school shares its property with St. John's Episcopal Church, the students took their plan to the church's building and grounds committee and won approval to install the screen.

So the meadow was saved, but the expanse of black netting didn't look pretty. The pupils then decided that an alphabet garden for preschoolers - with flowers and plants representing each letter of the alphabet - would brighten the spot.

In the fall, the current crop of second-graders planted some of the garden's letters, said Anne Schoenhut, the second-grade teacher. They paid for the project through donations and by selling bags of birdseed.

But the project really took off last week, shortly after the school won a grant from the National Gardening Association in the form of a $500 Home Depot gift card. The money helped pay for gloves, soil and other gardening equipment.

The Gardening Association grants are awarded to schools and community organizations with child-centered garden programs. This year, 50 first-place winners received a $500 gift card; 100 second-prize winners got $250.

On Thursday, a gorgeous sunny day, second-graders at St. John's got a treat. They put down their pencils, left their classrooms, walked outside, pulled on gloves, grabbed trowels and began digging.

"Seeing some of these children who don't do gardening at home get in there and get dirty, it's just great," said Sharon Runge, a parent and also the school's director of development.

By the end of the school day, nearly an entire alphabet's worth of plants, seeds and bulbs had been planted, starting with Asiatic lilies and ending with zinnias. Watermelon seeds were in the W spot, O was represented by oregano.

N was nicotiana, a kind of flowering tobacco. "My mom picked it," said Nicholas Uzzell, 8, who said the alphabet garden was his first time gardening, though his family has pots of plants leading up to the front door of his house, he said.

L, planted by Taylor O'Connell, 8, was lily of the valley. Taylor had finished planting, and was helping Romana Awuah, 7, plant Asiatic lily bulbs. "First, we started on weeds, then we started planting, and when we finished we helped other people plant," Taylor said.

Q hadn't been filled, but that would be easy - Queen Anne's lace. X would be a challenge, though. The wooden letter would probably just get a sign next to it, saying something like "extra special soil," said Schoenhut.

Gabi Hernandez, 8, planted roses for the letter R. "There was a sign-up sheet outside Mrs. Schoenhut's door to sign up for the letter you want," she said, pausing in her hole-digging. "I picked R for rose. I think roses are pretty."

Sabrina Scott, the mother of 7-year-old Alexander, was one of several mothers on hand to help, if necessary. She had chosen the flower celosia, for the letter C, and Alexander was busy planting it. "I just went to my favorite garden center and chose from what they had," she said.

School officials also recently learned that the school had been designated a Maryland Green School by the Maryland Association of Outdoor and Environmental Education, said Runge.

"It's just a designation," she said. "But it's a nice tool when you apply for other grants."

The designation, which honors schools that include outdoor education in their curriculum, has been awarded to about 100 schools since it was started in 1999.

Anna Puma, head of school, said she likes to get the pupils at St. John's out in the fresh air as often as possible.

"I'm a real believer that children need to have real experiences," she said. "When you can see the children being outside, working with adults, creating something for preschoolers, it's just great."

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