By Serena Vasudeva
MTSU Seigenthaler News Service
Standing in the midmorning heat of an almost summer day, Annette Johnson’s class of fifth graders at Broadview Elementary School spent one of their last days of the academic year tending to their thirsty garden.
A gentle breeze carried excited voices as students ferried small pails from inside the school to water their garden. Shalom Francis, 11, twisted a handheld soil tiller into the freshly watered soil between the strawberry plants, one of six raised gardening beds the students planted and tended with the help of the Franklin County Garden Club. Of all the plants in the garden, strawberries are Shalom’s favorite.
“I like strawberries because they taste good,” she said.
Johnson, a teacher for 23 years, explained that a hands-on approach makes the garden a valuable part of the students’ education.
“Some kids don’t have the chance to do this at home so it opens them up to a new life,” she added, “they love eating the strawberries.”
Lola Eslick, president of the Franklin County Garden Club, stood in a bright blue visor in front of Johnson’s class. After giving the students a short talk about mason bees, the group dispersed to the different beds armed with spades and gloves, ready to weed.
Eslick explained that the garden started in 2019 thanks to a $3,500 grant and community members who provided fertilizer and lumber for the raised garden beds.
“We wanted to share with [the students] the fact that you don’t have to buy everything from Kroger, you can grow it,” Eslick explained.
Eslick has gardened throughout her life but noted she became more involved when her sons, Craig and Scott, opened a landscaping service in Winchester. After attending Master Gardener courses at the local Cooperative Extension Service with her sons, she began planting more frequently as a way to bond with them.
Anita Miller, another volunteer with the Franklin County Garden Club, stood between a flock of gardening students and taught them how to care for their pepper plants. She believes that the garden teaches both practical skills and a love for nature. As an added bonus, it helps get students away from the persuasive screens of computers and phones.
“A lot of schools are thinking of doing outdoor classrooms. I think the pandemic was part of that,” Miller added.
The Franklin County Garden Club has worked with other schools, including Clark Memorial Elementary School. Drawing from the generosity of the community, the club transformed the school courtyard’s overgrown lawn into an outdoor classroom. Featuring benches and outdoor chalk boards, the space can be seen from the school’s library. The area is shaded by two trees, one which bears sweet apples for students to eat.
Assisting the club was Boy Scouts Troop 182, led by Keith Merrit and John Paul Wallace. Two scouts in their early teens, Luke Merrit and Austin Huffines, were awarded the rank of Eagle Scout for their community service.
“We couldn’t have done it without them. The Boy Scouts came out and power washed the area and dug up dirt,” said Miller.
Karen Rizzuti explained that her membership with the Franklin County Garden Club allowed her to connect with the community. The club also plants flower beds in the square and teaches people about horticulture, native plants and pollinators.
As for what's in her garden near her koi pond: “I couldn’t even tell you all the things I have.”
Rizzuti’s love for gardening started with her roots in an Air Force family. Even though she moved every three to four years as a child, her mother always kept a garden.
“I got my love of gardening from her and she passed away many, many years ago. What helps keep her memory alive for me is being out in the flowers because I know how much she loved it,” she said.
When Rizzuti’s children were young, she helped them grow pumpkins to harvest just in time for Halloween.
Eslick recalled eating yellow tomatoes for breakfast and canning all the grapes before family vacations.
“My father was blind and that didn’t stop him from tilling the ground,” she said.
“Working in the garden brings a sense of peace and communion with nature and God that you can’t find anywhere else. It’s a special kind of thing and I wouldn’t want the next generation to lose out on that,” Rizzuti said.
Multiple students at Broadview Elementary School told volunteers that they would ask their parents to start gardens with them over the summer.
“Garden clubs are graying. If we don’t involve younger people, then these older people are going to die off,” Eslick explained.
The Franklin County Garden Club’s next meeting, Pass the Plants, is a public fundraiser. Interested parties can bring plants to auction off with the proceeds going to the club’s funding. A master gardener will be in attendance to provide planting tips. Pass the Plants will be held on June 10 at 1 PM.
Serena Vasudeva is one of nine Middle Tennessee State University journalism students who recently spent two and a half weeks in Franklin County writing stories for the Herald Chronicle. More of their work can be found at www.theroadtripclass.com.