The Greening of Garza

By Sharon Doerre   
Photography by Jenna Noel

Every semester Martha Cason starts her Garza Gardens course with the same blunt question: “How many of you are involved with farming?”

The response from the classroom of high school students is nearly always the same. 

“No one raises their hands,” Cason says. “But of course they all eat!”

Working with that insight, Cason takes a diverse group of students familiar with agriculture only as consumers and turns it into an organic produce operation in which students grow and harvest basil, oregano, thyme, lavender and rosemary and sell them, each Wednesday, at the Austin Farmers’ Market. By now, most shoppers there have seen the Garza Greens banner, though they may not know what innovations it represents.

“It brings together a lot of really good stuff,” Cason says of the program she started eight years ago. “Gardening and business, economics and government, school and community, working with books and physical labor.” And all while meeting the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS) standards.

Gonzalo Garza Independence High School is tucked away on the edge of the Chestnut neighborhood in central East Austin. Surrounded by small homes, many undergoing complete to-the-studs renovation, the two small yellow-brick buildings that make up Garza High seem stuck in the Eisenhower era. Inside, however, is an alternative school designed to prevent students from dropping out of high school, and to recover students who do.

Some students who come to Garza wrestle with the conventional learning style that requires sitting in a classroom for seven hours a day; others felt lost among the hundreds of students at their home high schools. Some couldn’t manage to balance work and family with the traditional high school schedule. Others have personal problems.

Sitting outside on student-built picnic tables under the shade trees adjacent to the garden plots, Jordan, a new Garza Gardens student, notes that despite attending Austin High for four years, he “made some poor life choices. When I came here,” he says, “I still needed art, geometry, algebra II, government, economics, all that.”

Cason’s multi-credit horticulture course is part of the Garza approach commonly described as “solution-based.” Students in the Garza Garden’s Horticulture I course meet each morning for two hours, combining work in the garden with classroom learning to earn a total of 4.5 credits. Each student must attend at least two of the weekly farmers markets, and although the students often sit quietly at the Garza Greens table, they quickly become animated when asked questions, even handing out recipes. As class vice-president of marketing, Jordan goes to market nearly every week.

“I love it,” he says. “It reminds me a lot of Garza. All the vendors are like a giant family, like a community.” Other students are drawn to the class for more pragmatic reasons.

“I really needed the credits,” says Aaron, as he takes a break from mulching pathways between raised beds. “But I also like gardening, and I thought it would be fun. It’s a good way to earn credits and make a difference.” Justin, who had envisioned a life of manual labor, completed Horticulture I/Garza Gardens last spring, and decided to take a different direction.

“Every day I was out in the garden,” he explains, “and I think I went to almost every one of the farmers markets. I got involved.”

Last summer, Justin was among three Garza students to give a 90-minute seminar at the American Horticultural Society Youth Gardening Symposium in Minneapolis. Now on track to graduate, he plans to use his deeper knowledge of fresh produce in culinary school.

 

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Today, Garza’s small central courtyard contains 14 raised beds filled with herbs destined for the farmers market. The cafeteria garden sits behind the school, on the grounds of the old elementary school playground. Twenty-one three-by-six foot raised beds, all student-built, contain a wide variety of vegetables that now augment the usual cafeteria offerings. Students are required to make compost, amend the soil, select, plant, weed and water crops, and maintain planter boxes and mulch pathways.

Next come those farming lessons that occur in offices rather than seedbeds. Thanks to a group of student mentors from the Students in Free Enterprise (SIFE) program at Texas State San Marcos, Garza students are working their way through such real-word tasks as issuing stock, creating marketing brochures and improving accounting practices. The program can’t succeed without group effort. But Cason’s also committed to teaching such hard-to-pin-down skills as individual choice and hard work. That’s why she assigns each student complete responsibility for a particular vegetable crop.

“The kids select their own beds and crops,” she says, looking over the new beds full of tiny seedlings, noting which ones need more water to withstand the bright September sun. “And when they harvest their vegetables, each student hand-carries the crop to the cooks in the cafeteria.”

This past fall’s harvest included tomatoes, lettuce, radishes, potatoes, carrots, squash, broccoli, leeks, cucumbers and green beans. “I’ve started eating the vegetables we grow and I am not a big vegetable person,” says Jordan. “I’m a real steak and potatoes kind of person. But now my favorite is probably tomatoes.” Growing vegetables leads to eating vegetables?

Lesson learned!