The post-hole digger makes a ringing sound as it strikes a rock in the well-tended perimeter of the Quincy Elementary School garden on Alder Street. In dusty boots, with her long, brown hair piled up, Emily Bryant is making short work of some fence repairs on this hot, dry afternoon.
It’s late August, school is just about to start, and Bryant is making sure the half-acre plot will be in top shape when she brings groups of K-6 students across the small parking lot and through the gate to work on their raised beds of flowers and vegetables.
Disney songs play on a portable stereo nearby where two small helpers are building a fairy garden under Bryant’s watchful eye.
“That’s a good job with that road in your fairy community,” the west central Georgia native tells 8-year-old Huck Winford, soon to be a third-grader at QES, and his sister Marin, 5, who will begin kindergarten on the Pioneer campus. “Are you ready to help me take these trimmings over to the compost pile?”
The eager junior builders jump up from their work and head over to steer the worn wheelbarrow that is nearly bigger than they are, turning and dumping the dried twigs and leaves.
“Hey! Agreement number one!” Bryant calls after her charges in her soft, Southern accent. “Always walk in the garden.”
From her office at QES next door, Principal Lara Hollister explained that Bryant will teach gardening and agriculture lessons for 14 classes of K-6 students during this, her third year with the school. And new for 2017-18, Bryant will do the same with the Gardening Club for seventh- and eighth-graders at Quincy High School.
“Emily doesn’t just manage our garden — which she is great at—she is a fabulous teacher and artist,” Hollister said. “She brings a lot of enrichment to our students. We are so fortunate to have her.”
The principal also describes Bryant as dedicated and passionate about both gardening and student education.
“Well, I guess I’m also passionate about keeping our fences up!” Bryant laughed, not missing a beat with the long-handled post-hole tool. Some deer droppings and a pile of redwood posts lie nearby.
The Plumas Unified School District provides garden facilities at all four of its elementary campuses — including Chester, Indian Valley, Portola and Quincy — and works from what began as the local Digging In community gardening program to offer curriculum-based instruction that dovetails with PUSD’s science education goals.
The district endorses school gardening instruction as “a perfect complement to (our) already established outdoor common core mission and values” and as “an alternative avenue for hands-on learning … related to a wide range of subjects, including reading, writing, art and history,” according to its website.
Bryant agrees completely.
“I always say gardening is the number one thing that can teach you everything about life,” she said, bending to check a drip line and pulling off a few tender cabbage leaves to crunch upon while handing her interviewer a tasty sample. “I teach my students about soil science, math calculations, shapes of plants, scientific drawing, the history of where plants and seeds come from and much more.”
She grew up with a green thumb in the town of LaGrange, 90 minutes south of the Chattahoochee River. In the warm, moist climate, Bryant’s family raised vibrant home gardens of organic okra, tomatoes, peppers, collards and all the fixings for good Southern cooking.
“And beans, oh my gosh, so many beans!” Bryant laughed.
By the age of 15, she was helping her sister Ashley, a teacher, build gardens at elementary schools all over Atlanta. Then it was off to art college.
California came next on Bryant’s journey, with one year spent helping immigrant-family farmers in Gilroy and Watsonville to enter into community-shared agriculture programs and another in San Francisco and Half Moon Bay, home of “some beautiful surf” and the Great Pumpkin Festival. There, she helped the Green Hearts Family Farm grow from a 215-person operation to a 375-employee CSA that planted, harvested, boxed and delivered fresh produce all over the Greater San Francisco Bay Area.
Quincy is a different world.
“Even though I’m still getting used to the snow — which I never had any experience with before — I just love it here in Plumas County. This place has so much to offer,” Bryant said, smiling and relating a hilarious experience with her first skiing lesson at Donner Ranch last winter. “I learned there isn’t much snow etiquette on a mountain. People should have to yell ‘Fore,’ like in golf, or ‘On your right,” like in bicycling. I was totally dominating the bunny hill and dodging snowboarders on all sides, and then my teacher takes me up to the top of a run and says, ‘OK, are you ready to go?’ And I’m thinking nooooo! Well, I made it down that mountain, but it was very humbling.”
Laughter echoes through the hot, sunny garden. Winter seems a long way away.
Quick to credit all of the people and organizations who have built the PUSD school gardens program over the last 10 years, the master gardener extends her thanks to folks like Pamela Noel, who provides the land for the QES school garden; Greenville’s Paul Mrowczynski and Quincy’s nonprofit Mountain Passages; Cody Reed and Elizabeth Powell of Five-Foot Farm (Reed manages the school garden at Indian Valley Elementary); Susan Payne, president of the Board for Sierra Farmstead and many others.
“They’ve all been so great and I appreciate the work they’ve put in — that they continue to provide,” Bryant said.
Payne, who acts as a fiscal agent with supplemental support funding for the PUSD program, agrees that it takes a village to build up a school garden program.
“We help fund extra things like fence posts, seeds, fruit trees and soil amendments,” she said. “We’re hoping to install a shade structure at the Indian Valley garden.”
Payne also acknowledged the value of Bryant’s work with Quincy students.
“I think it’s essential to get kids outside,” she commented. “It’s so easy to use a garden as an outdoor classroom where students can learn about plants and science while they also develop their skills in math, writing in journals, and even history and social studies.”
Principal Hollister concurred.
“Our QES garden is part of our outstanding science curriculum that we coordinate with Rob Wade and the Outdoor Core program from the Plumas County Office of Education,” Hollister said. “We are creating our own place-based lessons here for the Next Generation Science Standards. All of our students will benefit.”
The greater good is exactly what motivates Bryant, who says she enjoys inspiring students to learn by observing — even if it means leaving in peace the gophers who invade their garden — so students can figure out for themselves which plants the critters have come for.
She wants them to be curious learners, about where a food comes from and the culture in which a plant was raised and eaten.
“There’s so much the students can learn, besides how to plant and grow things,” Bryant mused. “Corn comes from South America, squash from Central America with all its rivers. Here at school, we are growing blueberry-cherry tomatoes, butter-crunch lettuce, carrots, sweet potatoes, peanuts, onions, peaches and more. Those petunias volunteered themselves in our spinach bed and the students and I agreed to let them stay. They’re pretty.”
Saving seeds is one more part of promoting stewardship for the future and heirlooms can teach students a lot, Bryant said.
“Think about the favorite foods and meals your family eats,” she explained. “How did these plants adapt and evolve? They carry all of their information in their genes and I tell my students the same is true of them. They are carrying information on.”