Banana and apples trees, pomegranate, pear, and plum. Blackberries and strawberries, lemons and persimmons. Thyme, sage, and a host of other herbs. This isn’t a supermarket produce section or a busy Saturday farmer’s market—it’s an edible forest, two of them in fact, planted by students in the courtyard of Oakland International High School.
The two plots have over 50 edible plant varieties: different kinds of fruit trees, berries, root vegetables and an array of culinary and medicinal herbs. They were planted as part of a three-week, intensive gardening class at the end of the last school year. “It was a real chance to excel in knowledge that isn’t ratified often in a classroom environment,” said Jennifer Kelly-DeWitt, whose class unveiled the two edible forests in June.
There are about 85 school sites in Oakland said Park Guthrie, a garden education teacher for Oakland Unified School District, and 60 with some kind of garden. But OIHS is the first to implement an edible forest design, which emphasizes a diverse range of plants that forge mutually beneficial relationships. The plants are mostly perennial—they grow back every season—and so require less maintenance than a traditional vegetable garden. This makes an edible forest well suited to a school setting, he said, because it can be left alone over the summer break.
Now the gardens are thriving as the students return to school. The trees are still in their infancy, but winding vines, leafy green plants and shrubs crowd together in the sunny courtyard plots. At one corner of the garden, the scent of sage is in the air and the other corner smells like mint. Plenty of bees buzz around the budding flowers, a sign that the garden is flourishing, Guthrie said.
Students will continue to care for the edible forest gardens at OIHS, DeWitt said. Some of the 12th grade students will do a garden-related senior internship this year and take on maintenance responsibilities like weeding, watering and harvesting. The students will get to take some of the produce and herbs home, said DeWitt, to share with their families.
DeWitt’s gardening class from last year, about 22 students, worked for three weeks with Guthrie to design and plant these diverse, sustainable gardens. “They really do an incredible job connecting kids with nature, and connecting kids to healthy food,” Guthrie said.
Guthrie designed the layout for the first plot, which occupies a sunny 9-by-22 foot space on one side of the school courtyard. The students planted this garden according to Guthrie’s design, then worked as a team to design and plant a second edible forest in a larger, 22 foot-square plot.
A rainwater barrel is installed at the edge of each garden, to reduce water usage by reusing rainwater and to enable a sort of automated watering system. The plan is to develop a drip system, Guthrie said, to make it easier to water the gardens, especially during the summer when school is not in session. He is careful to set up gardening systems that schools and students can maintain on their own. “It is easy to get resources, time and enthusiasm to start gardens,” Guthrie said. “But often it is harder to maintain the gardens.”
The high school, which has about 327 students, is geared toward recent immigrants, said DeWitt, who has been teaching English at OIHS for four years. “A lot of our students come from some kind of agricultural background,” she said. “It might be a garden at home or it might be that they lived on a farm. Many of them grew up in refugee camps, and the way they were supplementing rations was with a garden.”
“It’s really an incredible group of students,” Guthrie said. “They really just took it and jumped into it.”
The edible forest project is part of a larger push by OUSD to link school gardening programs with nutrition. Many students in the district are at high risk for chronic, diet-related diseases, Guthrie said, and gardening is meant to teach students about better nutrition and encourage them to eat a wider variety of fresh produce.
“There aren’t a lot of districts with centralized support for school gardens,” Guthrie said. The Alameda County public health department funds his position, and grants from non-profits have helped supply the plants and equipment necessary for the edible forest gardens OIHS.
Guthrie is using the two OIHS edible forests as a demonstration site, and he held a training session with teachers from other schools to spread the word about this type of garden. But there is a huge range of gardens in Oakland schools, and the models vary from campus to campus. Though the edible forest model is easier to maintain in many ways, said Guthrie, the most important thing is to find a garden that works for the school community.
“All kinds of school gardens are good,” Guthrie said. “It’s really a way of embedding the value of healthy eating into the landscape.”