The seeds Frontier Elementary School fifth-graders planted on a recent blustery April afternoon offered the only hint of spring amidst the chill.
The students were rowdy — an assembly earlier that morning had absorbed their capacity for stillness.
But at last, as the end of the school day neared, Carmelita Locke’s students stuffed sunflower seeds, and onion and potato bulbs into the soil so that as the weather warms, the plants will rise.
The organic garden is based on the Native American three sisters — squash, beans and corn.
Native American gardeners leveraged the plants’ natural relationships with one another to grow the crops.
Beans convert nitrogen in the air to nitrates, which fertilizes the soils for corn and squash. Beans can grow up the corn stalks, and the squash leaves cover the ground between the corn and beans, which prevents weeds from growing, according to the Iroquois Museum in New York.
In Locke’s class, students ultimately cook a feast with garden food when studying Native American culture. The herbs grown — sage, cilantro, basil, rosemary, mint and parsley — hang in her room to dry.
Traditionally, gardeners plant seeds and later harvest vegetables. Because summer vacation bisects the school year, each new fifth-grade class at Frontier Elementary enjoys the benefits of last year’s class at the beginning of the school year. Then, in spring, they till the soil for the pleasure of next year’s class.
Locke says her students benefit from gardening, but also by learning to eat healthy.
“Growing (vegetables) like this really provides (students) with an opportunity to try fresh things,” Locke said.
Students ate raw corn, for instance.
“It tastes really good,” said student Tony Gentless.
“What about rutabagas?” Locke asked. “They love rutabagas.”
Mackenzie Mann said she eyed the tall and pretty sunflowers at the beginning of thethe year, which made her excited to grow them. The pumpkins, too, grew large.
“We painted them and afterwards we ate them,” she said.
This year’s garden cultivation began shortly after spring break, with the spreading of manure in the soil.
“They’re pretty good about it,” said Locke about the potential gross factor. The garden is organic, which means students use no pesticides.
Over the summer, Locke and her students alternate attending to the garden — weeding, pruning and harvesting. The rule is: he who works takes home.
For the past two years, the tomatoes have not thrived, and last year, disease conquered them.
This year, fifth-grade will try cotton instead of tomatoes.
The potential problems with cotton include its warm soil requirement and the seeds’ coating of pesticides.
The solutions present an intriguing challenge. Students will plant them in pots and invent pot warmers to keep the soil above 65 degrees.
Despite the laughter of the men who sold Locke the cottonseeds in Safford, who told her Payson is too cold for growing cotton, Locke hopes to prove them wrong with good, old-fashioned ingenuity.
Which, in all likelihood the Native Americans possessed in the early days of planting the three sisters, and which will help these fifth-graders tackle all of life’s challenges — pot warmers and beyond.