A courtyard situated in between the lower school cafeteria and the preschool at Walsingham Academy will soon house a "learning garden." (Christine Sampson, Virginia Gazette / June 30, 2014)

WILLIAMSBURG – Walsingham Academy plans to transform an under-utilized courtyard into a "learning garden," an exciting place for students to discover nature and a peaceful spot to honor one of the school's most loved leaders.

School administrators say the garden idea has its roots in a recent ceremony honoring Walsingham Academy president Sister Mary Jeanne Oesterle, who recently celebrated her 50th year of service to the Sisters of Mercy.

"We thought, 'What could we do that would be meaningful for Sister Mary Jeanne and meaningful for the children, because that's really where her heart is?'" said Mary Johnston, Walsingham's director of curriculum development. "At the same time, we wanted it to be an extension of our beautiful campus."

The courtyard itself is a sunny space between the lower school cafeteria and the preschool, measuring about 125 feet by 200 feet. Contributions from faculty members will get the garden off the ground before summer's end, Johnston said. She laid out a vision for what the garden could be: a seating area surrounded by flowers and trees, perhaps with an arbor, with raised beds and walkways and spaces dedicated to student projects – maybe even an area where a teacher could take a class for story time.

Johnston said the project will also benefit from the experiences of the school's many faculty and staff members who already enjoy gardening and landscaping – including Jeff Frye, Walsingham's director of facilities.

Frye said he has seen gardens in several other schools work very well, and said he looks forward to being a part of Walsingham's garden. He said the school has an opportunity to show students how to interact with nature on a practical level.

"We have an area that has some good growth potential," he said.

Johnston, herself a Walsingham graduate and former classroom teacher there, compared the project's potential to a school garden cultivated across town at Matthew Whaley Elementary.

"It just makes sense," she said. "If you want children to understand the world, then you need to bring nature into their lives in a very real way."

The award-winning Matthew Whaley garden – dubbed "Mattey's Garden" – has become a learning tool for the students, a source of pride for the school and even a relaxing place for the public to enjoy, according to the garden's manager, Genrose Lashinger.

Lashinger said each grade is responsible for a certain area within it. The local Master Gardener organization helps with upkeep, and donations come from the Parent Teacher Association and other community members to support the garden's monetary needs. Lashinger, who taught at the school for 34 years, said the students learn not just science and math concepts but also historical concepts, such as indigenous plants and Native American crops. Students have also looked to Mattey's Garden for inspiration for art and poetry. The garden was commissioned in 1999 as a "Roots and Shoots" project that united children – the "shoots" – and adult mentors – the "roots" – together in nature. It features a pond, a pavilion, an herb garden and more.

"We call it our outdoor classroom ... You can do almost anything," Lashinger said. "The kids just love it. It's so amazing to see children realizing that carrots come out of the ground instead of a plastic bag."

Johnston said she hopes the Walsingham garden project will gain momentum once parents and community members see it start to take shape.

"Our parents are so interested in helping their children to grow ... I wouldn't be surprised if I saw people coming to us saying, 'I'd like to donate this so that my child and my child's classmates can experience this,'" Johnston said.

She added: "I have every belief that it will come together as it grows. Right now, we have what we need to get a nice start."

Sampson can be reached at 757-345-2345.