R. Roger Rowe School garden continues to grow

Students learn about worm composting with a visit from Solana Center for Environmental Innovation.
(Jessica Henke)

In the R. Roger Rowe School garden, fifth grade teacher Jessica Henke is cultivating leadership, teamwork, social and emotional skills and an appreciation for the natural world. Elementary school students are gleaning these valuable life lessons while getting their hands dirty laying mulch and building worm composting bins, taking on the responsibility of caring for the school chickens and learning the science behind hydroponic gardening.

The Rowe garden is a sliver of land between the 400 building at the back of the campus and the upper blacktop, accessed by a door leading out from Henke’s classroom.
About four years ago, Henke went to then-Principal Kim Pinkerton to inquire about the underutilized space: “Can my class use it?”

With her blessing, Henke started working on the garden with her second graders, who are fifth graders now, and every year doing a little bit more.

Her fifth graders are in the garden in the mornings and once a week she sees third, fourth and fifth graders in her elective class, “Leadership and Community Through Gardens.”

In the garden, students are prepping planter boxes, growing and harvesting veggies, learning about worm composting and caring for the school’s chickens. In garden class, Henke incorporates activities from other subjects like math, science, writing and art.

Last year students completed a bright and beautiful new mural for the garden wall. After the Sperlinga family heard about the mural project, they offered to contribute to help the garden grow. With their donation, Henke was able to purchase a new greenhouse and new hydroponic grow towers.

R. Roger Rowe School's "Schoolhouse Chicks."
(Jessica Henke)

Henke just finished setting up the little white greenhouse and fifth graders started planting the first seeds last week.

Hydroponics are a way of growing plants without soil, using nutrient-rich water. The vertical gardens are also considered a faster way of growing. Why people would need to use hydroponics was Henke’s first lesson for the students, teaching them about how the method is used in places where growing conditions are challenging like big cities where there is a lack of space, tough climates like Antarctica and even space stations.

Fifth graders will incorporate a lot of science as they grow and maintain the plants in the greenhouse.

Another new addition to the garden this year is the chicken coop. The Faulkner family donated funds to build the chicken coop which is now home to seven chickens: “They’re so cute and so much fun,” Henke said.

“The Schoolhouse Chicks” (as the custom-made sign above the coop reads) include Ruby Red, Nancy, Honey, Bunny, Nell, Dorothy and school favorite the black and white spotted Ms. Penguin. Honey and Bunny are the Easter Egger chickens, who lay powder blue eggs.

Henke’s grandmother had chickens growing up but there is a lot about chickens that she is learning alongside the second graders, including the conditions and timing of when they lay eggs. In addition to caring for and learning about chickens, she also plans to have her students track egg production.

Ideally, Henke would love to partner with local restaurants with Schoolhouse Chicks eggs, to show students the whole process of where their food comes from.

The mural in the school garden.

There has been a lot of community engagement and support for the garden, which Henke loves. Over the years the Rancho Santa Fe Garden Club has provided grants, Grangetto’s donated mulch and garden tools, Mountain Meadow Mushroom Farm donated “an insane amount” of compost, and RCP Block and Brick is donating rocks that third graders and special education students will use to build a rock garden.

Henke has also made a connection with local Boy Scout Cooper Vincent, a Rowe graduate and junior at Cathedral Catholic. For his Eagle project Cooper plans to add two wooden benches and a trellis to the garden.

Henke has taught nearly every grade level at Rowe and as a lifelong learner she loves to try new things and different curriculums. She loves gardening and describes herself as a huge environmentalist, having gone to UC Santa Cruz for her undergraduate degree.

“I do have a passion for the environment but my passion really is growing kids as a whole person. I feel like the garden is a good place to support students in a way that grows them as individuals, building confidence and leadership,” Henke said. “I’ve spent countless hours learning things myself because I think there’s so much that we could be doing to help that, more than just in a classroom. I feel this is a special place to put my energy.”