By Lindy Magness (Environmental Education Assistant ’21) and Nichole Barrows (Director of Education)

Exciting things are growing at Dixon Education Center! As part of Project GROWS’ continued partnership with Dixon this calendar year, we have focused on the goal of transforming the garden into a welcoming space that preschoolers can take one look at and know, “That space is for ME!” An additional goal of this year’s infrastructure additions and beautification projects is to make it easier for teachers to use this space on their own! Truly, this year has been a team effort, so make sure to read on to hear more about the contributions of so many organizations to the garden this year. Special thanks to the home team at Dixon for believing in the power of garden education and attending to so many details with us this year: Katie-Schulz-Ditchen, Dr. Jelisa Wolfe, Ronnie Riley, and Patrick “PJ” Garrett!

Here is what we have been up to!

Garden Lessons: This spring and fall, we continued the great work started by our Director of Food Access, Megan Marshall, in which all students at Dixon participate in four hands-on garden lessons outside each spring and four lessons each fall. JMU Volunteer Caitlin Schlosberg was a huge help in prepping the garden for the lessons and assisting students with their garden tasks. In addition to harvesting radishes, planting potatoes, watering the garden, and transplanting seedlings, the students’ most fun lesson was enthusiastically ripping out the Austrian winter peas, a fall cover crop planted by our Food Access Assistant Natalie Pax last year, who faithfully tended the garden during the COVID-19 school shutdowns! Using cover crops is one way to help us improve our soil at Dixon, and the preschoolers using all of their muscles on these crops reminded us of the kinesthetic and physical benefits of gardening during the school day! Thank you to Katie-Schulz-Ditchen for planning garden stations and infusing us with energy for outdoor learning that is accessible to EVERY student.

Youth Leader Workdays and Plantings: In July, our six Youth Leaders in Agriculture staff attended two full-day workdays at Dixon, taking on a wide array of tasks to get the garden ready for the school year. Just like on the farm, the youth staff weeded and hula hoed all eight beds, straw-mulched the potatoes, and seeded winter squash (butternut and patty pan to be specific!). We planted carrots, a preschool favorite, and put in some new ever-bearing strawberry plants from Edible Landscaping. We focused on planting perennials that require less intensive care and maximum sensory exploration benefit, like garlic chives and sage. Last but not least, thanks to our executive director Tom Brenneman and volunteer Daniel Barrows, we delivered installed two large cattle-panel arches between beds and planted passionflower on one, and annuals like cucumbers on the other. Next summer, we look forward to lush, vine-covered arches to welcome students to enter and explore the garden beds!

Infrastructure Updates: Then there are the structural changes, and they are BIG! Lucky for us, local Boy Scout Caleb Jones of Troop 81 in Crimora took on the Dixon garden as his Eagle Scout project this year. Along with a group of dedicated scouts and parents, Caleb designed, built, and installed a kid-friendly tool shed, two beautiful 8-foot arches on both entrance to the garden, a large chalkboard on wheels, and an assortment of weatherproof wooden benches that are just the perfect height for both preschoolers and adults. In addition, he laid landscape fabric over the teaching area and then mulched it with woodchips for maximum, chemical-free weed suppression. The garden has been transformed into a usable outdoor classroom space with installations that will last us many years due to impeccable construction and choice of materials. Thank you, Caleb, for your enthusiasm and perseverance on such a big project that will benefit Dixon students for years to come! In addition to the Eagle Scout installations, Staunton City School installed a new fence in May, effectively making this garden deer-proof, a long goal of ours at Dixon and radically expanding the varieties of plants we can now grow in this space.

Landscaping: Another big change this year was landscaping the fruit trees, which previously had been vulnerable to lawn mowers and weed whackers. Now they are safely surrounded by mulch and stepping stones, allowing students to explore the area. This woodchipped area also serves as a “fungal zone” for the trees, meaning that the trees’ shallow roots no longer need to compete with grass in order to grow. Around the apple, pear, and peach trees, we planted edible perennials, including a new blueberry bush and fig trees, as well as flowering perennials like purple coneflowers, stonecrop, lavender, rosemary, and butterfly bush! Thank you to Cornelius Frantz of Silver Run Forest Farm for a lesson on how to prune our fruit trees in winter and summer to improve the trees’ health as well as fruit production, and Queen City Silviculture for a donation and delivery of woodchips.

Education signage: New educational signs to help students navigate the garden are also in the works! We painted numbered signs to label each garden bed, and art teacher Gina Gaines and Dreama Simonetti painstakingly hand-painted gorgeous signs to mark the fruit trees and vegetables. (Aren’t they beautiful? Don’t worry, we’re waterproofing the signs so they can last a long time!) Thanks to the Youth Leaders, the shed has been repainted as well, giving the garden a fresh, new feel. And don’t miss the huge new Dixon garden sign painted by Gina Gaines and installed by Caleb Jones that marks the entrance to the garden.

Birdhouses: This year the garden also received care and attention from Joe Thompson, local birder and member of the Augusta Bird Club. Joe installed and monitored three bird boxes, occasionally popping into our garden classes with binoculars in hand to share about the latest “nesting news”. Students enjoyed peeking into the closest box regularly to monitor the nests and eggs of several birds, including bluebirds and chickadees. We’re grateful for this valuable environmental education during the school day!

Pond Renovations: We’re also thankful for the time and materials that Staunton City Schools Facilities Maintenance invested into the POND! Thanks to Earl McCray, Danny Clifton, Randy Petry, and many other Maintenance Department staff, the pond now has a working fountain pouring water between two pond sections, complete with lovely water lilies and fish provided by Dr. Wolfe. Surrounding the pond are stepping stones, landscape fabric and rocks to suppress weeds, and plants like bee balm to attract pollinators. This fresh new pond attracts all sorts of wildlife to the garden, like bathing robins, swimming turtles, and hopping wood frogs, making it easy for students to observe nature up close! Shout out to Ronnie Riley and PJ Garrett for fielding many questions about irrigation.

Root Viewer:  Staunton City Schools’ Master Carpenter Andrew Long built an amazing large-scale root viewer so that all of the students can see the parts of a plant which are usually hidden from view underground!

Teacher Training and Supplies: We are also feeling deep gratitude for our great partnership with preschool Special Education teacher Katie Schulz-Ditchen. Katie coordinates with the other teachers to schedule and co-facilitate garden lessons with Nichole Barrows, who manages the garden. Before students returned to school this year, Nichole and Katie met with the entire teaching staff at Dixon, orienting them to the current crops and the new infrastructure and sharing advice for garden-based lessons they can facilitate on their own this year. Katie is hard at work securing mini-grants, garden supplies, signage, and educational materials to stock the shed for teachers. Katie also worked with all of the preschool students to secure us certification as a National Wildlife Foundation Certified Schoolyard Habitat!

What’s Growing in the Beds? This year, since we gave the bulk of our attention to infrastructure improvements, we focused our growing energy on 1) long-season vegetable crops like popcorn, sweet peppers and potatoes that we planted in the spring and will be harvesting this fall; 2) bright, long-lasting annual flowers like celosia, marigolds, zinnias, and sunflowers; and 3) perennial flowering plants and herbs like chives, garlic chives, sage, rosemary, obedient plant, and culver’s root that students can enjoy for years to come with little maintenance.

Thank you to everyone who has helped us transform the Dixon garden this year! We can’t wait to hear about how these improvements will help teachers facilitate connections between students, plants, and animals in the garden.

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