On the cutting edge of cultivation, Twin Lakes Elementary School in Hialeah is home to a food forest. Fifty other schools serving elementary-age students in the Miami-Dade school district also have gardens, but Twin Lakes is the only one that features forest gardening.
This garden, like all food forests, is filled with edible plants growing in a way that mimics a natural woodland, explains Eddie Recinos. He started the project about 21/2 years ago when he was an art teacher at the school.
“I wanted the students and teachers to feel they were actually improving their school and doing something to give them ownership over their space,” he says. He also wanted to teach children about better nutrition and ways to use resources efficiently.
“We’ve witnessed firsthand that if children grow kale, they will eat kale. If they grow collards, they will eat collards and they are excited about doing it,” he says.
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A food forest is a sustainable, organic method of gardening that is inexpensive to plant, requires little maintenance and produces food year round as well as provides seed for future crops. By layering and companion planting, instead of using rows in a garden bed, plants are in close proximity based on their needs for sun, root depth and their benefits to other plants.
Although trendy, a food forest is not a new idea. In fact, it’s the way people in the tropics have been growing food for a thousand years.
“We are looking to the past to move into the future,” says Recinos, who had such a good response to his forest that he left his teaching post last summer to become a program manager at the Education Fund. That’s a nonprofit organization in Miami that helps get the private sector involved in improving public education.
Currently the fund is involved with the Plant A Thousand Gardens Collaborative Nutrition Initiative that teaches students the seed-to-table food cycle by developing “outdoor garden laboratories,” explains Mimi Pink, director of communications and grants at the Education Fund.
The goal is to bring Recinos food forests to public schools in the district. “Just as every school has a media center, we want them to have a food forest too,” Pink says.
Today the 2,000-square-foot garden at Twin Lakes is planted with over 50 different crops including arugula, dinosaur kale, Meyer lemons and jaboticaba. However, at its inception, this area was nothing more than a patch of grass.
Although digging up the grass and adding top soil might make sense to some gardeners, Recinos took a much more budget-conscious approach that emphasized what he calls the “three R’s” — reusing, recycling and reducing. “Nothing goes to waste in a food forest,” he says.
He began by collecting cardboard from the cafeteria workers. “They get tons of it every day,” he says.
With help from students and third grade teacher Alena Sheriff, who oversees the garden today, they laid the cardboard down like a carpet over the grass.
Then they covered it with six to 12 inches of mulch made from tree trimmings when landscape work was done at any of the district schools. “The branches and cuttings are put through a chipper and delivered here so that the mulch becomes the life blood of the garden,” Recinos says.
Over time, the mulch prevents weeds from growing and allows the grass to decompose into organic material.
With the ground ready, he began by planting nitrogen-fixing plants such as pigeon pea trees and sunn hemp that also help improve the soil. “One of the principal things we do is feed the soil, not the individual plants,” Recinos says. “Healthy plants are a sign of healthy soil.”
These were followed with fruit trees such as hog plum, star apple, papaya and banana trees that would grow to form the forest canopy.
With his canopy trees in place, he planted smaller trees such as highly nutritious chaya and neem trees. In the islands, farmers plant neem in the corners of their fields to repel bugs, he explains.
Then came a layer of bushes including Barbados cherry, cranberry hibiscus, Egyptian spinach and peppers. Beneath these are herbaceous plants such as rosemary, lemon grass, garlic chives and society garlic to fill in spaces. Even the subsoil is utilized for root crops such as Cuban sweet potato or boniato.
Vines such as butterfly pea, which has edible leaves and vibrant blue flowers, fill in vertical spaces. And, finally, ground covers such as Malabar spinach, mint, oregano and Cuban oregano prevent any growing space from going to waste.
When it’s time to trim the plants, Sheriff has her students use a method called “chop and drop.” They cut back the nitrogen fixers such as chaya by about one third and return the cuttings to the earth as mulch.
When it’s time to harvest from the bushes, the children actually cut back the branches as they pick the leaves. “The harvesting and trimming are done simultaneously,” Recinos says.
The growing tree roots along with earthworms automatically aerate the soil so there’s no need for digging, which further cuts back on maintenance.
As it grows, a food forest creates habitat to attract bees, butterflies and birds that entertain the children while they help sustain the forest. “We do as much as we can to encourage wild life,” Recinos says.
Biodiversity is what keeps this garden going. If you plant one crop and a pest attacks it, you lose your entire crop. But here, there are plenty of plant varieties for both bugs and humans to savor.
Sheriff reaches for a branch of the cranberry hibiscus and exposes the vibrant purple undersides of the dark green leaves. Here, Recinos points out small white aphids that are sucking the life out of the plant. Most gardeners would apply insecticide but Sheriff merely looks for an uninfected plant nearby for us to sample.
“People ask how do you compete with the bugs and I say we don’t, we share,” Sheriff says. “It’s the only way to get around the whole problem.”
The forest at this school not only produces food but also is part of the curriculum in subjects as varied as math, science and language arts. “It offers students hands-on learning that research shows is so beneficial,” Pink says.
Sheriff has her class gather edible leaves to make a salad. A table and chairs in the garden make a comfortable place for the students to toss their meal. Then Sheriff uses the occasion to teach them about nutrition and healthy eating.
She also invites parents to workshops where she introduces them to harvested items such as society chives, red hog plum and Filipino spinach that they won’t find at Winn Dixie. “There’s a learning curve and an adjustment to the foods we grow here,” Sheriff says.
The garden has become a labor of love for the entire school.
The cafeteria staff prepared the home-grown boniato for a Thanksgiving celebration. And the custodial team supplied an orange wheelbarrow and helped make water available to all parts of the garden plot. One member of the custodial staff even contributed the banana trees that grow here.
The children are immeasurably proud of their garden, offering tours when parents visit and taking home bags of the things they harvest such as callaloo, okra, India lettuce and ripe Everglades tomatoes.
“Out here, the children start to notice what is around them whether it’s a bug or a butterfly. And they start to really appreciate nature in a way they never would have in a classroom,” Recinos says.