Tucked away toward the left side of Arcohe School’s campus lies a serene escape comprised of flowers, a pomegranate tree, a Rose of Sharon tree, a variety of plants and a pebble stone path leading to an umbrella-covered table and benches.
Beyond the plants and sitting area is a hand painted mural depicting an outdoor scene that was done by Arcohe students through the years with some help from their parents and first grade teacher Mrs. Edwards.
These days, the garden, which is usually tended to by students and overseen by Darlene Westphal and volunteer Tony Rutchena, is quieter than usual with distance learning taking the place of students walking past their handiwork between classes and during recess.
The care and improvements to the garden haven’t stopped though, and Westphal is hoping the community will help the garden grow even further.
In previous years, Westphal had donated money for tools and equipment for the community garden. She paid $600 for weed block and mulch, and was spending $3,000-4,000 out of her own pocket a year to provide necessities.
Having help from students and the community has never been a problem, but Westphal says that the garden is now looking for additional help financially to keep it maintained properly and for a greenhouse project.
“We completely rely on help,” Westphal said on Oct. 8 of the community garden. “I’m a believer in the country school and that idea of community. If it’s going to be sustainable, it’s got to be done as a community. It can’t fall on the shoulders of one or two people. It has to be all-inclusive.”
The garden, which is actually only one part of multiple gardens spread throughout Arcohe School, has been a source of education for students over the years as a hands-on example of sustainability and fresh fruits and vegetables.
The garden, which was originally started in 2002, has been running successfully with the help of donations from the community and local businesses.
Westphal said she hopes to add to a greenhouse the school already has by improving its roof and creating a frame.
“We’re working on a greenhouse. The cover’s not going to last, so my goal is to get enough money in donations so that I can put polycarbonate panels on it and frame it in and use it as an all-season greenhouse,” Westphal said. “I’ve had some training with solar energy.”
The garden project has evolved through the years and the goal remains the same: to teach students how to grow their own food with a focus on community and the environment, as well.
“We have to prepare these kids for the future, and the reality is, we have to limit our carbon footprint. We have to recycle, we have to repurpose,” Westphal said. “We have to show that what you take out of the soil you give back, and that they can grow their own food.”
From the hand-painted stones with inspiring messages to the carefully planted flower bulbs and borders of pebbles, the garden has become a source of pride and even has its own section on Arcohe School’s website.
“We try to give what we have and make do with as much as we have,” Westphal noted. The garden started as one area at Arcohe School and has since spread to eight.
It’s had as many as 30 different crops growing at once and, at one point, Westphal had a program for every grade level, including growing a giant pumpkin one year that ended up weighing 150 pounds.
“In terms of accessibility, the reason we have it here is that kids have access to it during their recess,” said Westphal, referring to past school years prior to the onset of distance learning. “They have the opportunity to hand water everything here. They have the opportunity to taste, smell, that kind of thing.”
Those who are interested in helping the Arcohe Garden Fund can send donations to Arcohe Garden Fund, Arcohe School, P.O. Box 93, Herald, CA 95638 or check out the Arcohe School and Community Garden Facebook page.
Until on-campus classes return, Westphal and Rutchena will continue maintaining and adding to the garden as much as possible, with the hope that students will keep learning about the food they consume.
“We just bring it full circle and show that what you grow you can eat and can also be planted and produce that circle of life,” Westphal said.