Matthew Whaley's school garden still growing strong at 20

Staff writer

A class of eager, dirt-covered first graders dug for earthworms behind Matthew Whaley Elementary School. Their teachers stood nearby and explained the impact worms have on the soil. Another group of students clustered around a small pond to check on the tadpoles that live there, while a third group checked on the compost piles.

It was just another busy day in Mattey’s Garden, which will celebrate its 20th anniversary Saturday, April 27.

This outdoor classroom and garden space was formally dedicated in May 1999 after members of the Williamsburg Garden Club approached Matthew Whaley about creating a school garden as part of a project to mark the 300th anniversary of the City of Williamsburg. The garden space was named Mattey’s Garden, sharing the same namesake as Matthew Whaley Elementary School.

In the two decades since, Mattey’s Garden has seen a generation of students make use of it.

A teaching tool

Kindergarten teacher Kerry Armbruster has been teaching at Matthew Whaley for almost 20 years herself, and she has worked the garden into her lessons every year, and as often as she can.

“It’s an extension of learning in the classroom year-round, and we try to come out here several times a week when the weather is nice,” said Armbruster. “Kindergartners need to do a lot of kinesthetic activities and getting to come out in the garden, even if it’s just to eat lunch or to do some of their writing exercises, it has an impact on these kids.”

Nearly every grade and class makes use of Mattey’s Garden in wildly different ways.

Kindergartners learn about herbs by planting them throughout the year, and about the life cycle from a frog pond in the back. First graders have lessons tied into books read in the classroom, such as planting turnips while reading the Russian folktale “The Enormous Turnip”, as well as about recycling and composting.

For older students, use ranges from art classes that come outside to sketch the plants, to history classes that come outside to learn about plants native to Virginia and about how Native Americans used the three sisters: corn, beans and squash.

Vegetables that are grown in the garden are often used in cooking classes and demonstrations led by the school cooks, when the crop permits.

While it also means getting students out of the classroom and away from screens, one of the garden’s biggest impacts is allowing students -- some of whom may not have any plants, or even a yard at home -- an opportunity to get hands-on with nature in a way they may not get anywhere else.

“A lot of our students live in apartments or in transitional housing, so they may not have access to a garden or even a yard at home,” said Armbruster. “It gives the kids an opportunity to go out and do things … the garden is as important a classroom here as anything with a number in it.”

While outdoor classrooms and garden spaces in schools have seen a surge in popularity in recent years, with examples in W-JCC ranging from Toano Middle School to Matoaka Elementary School in various stages of completion, the idea is not a new one. In the 1800s, German schools introduced outdoor play and activity areas for young children in the school gardens, which is from where the term and idea of kindergarten was born.

Keeping it going

It takes a lot of work to maintain the garden space, according to Williamsburg-James City County Master Gardener Louann Martin, who has been the manager of Mattey’s Garden for the past three years. Dozens of volunteers from the group have helped maintain and expand Mattey’s Garden, with some help from older students and parents.

“Mattey’s Garden is beautiful, and in order to keep this in the great shape it’s in, it has taken the help of a lot of volunteers,” Martin said. “The garden wouldn’t be here without the volunteers, who last year put more than 500 hours of work into maintaining it.”

Some of that work includes replacing more than a dozen raised beds, restoring the Alphabet Garden, a display that pairs each letter of the alphabet with a corresponding plant, and planting milkweed to attract butterflies. They’re also in the process of putting in signs next to the plants that will have QR codes that when scanned, will provide information about the plant.

To Martin’s delight, the garden opened to special needs students this year.

“Ever since we started these new special needs classes, the impact it’s had on these kids was almost instant,” Martin said. “It’s wonderful to see them react to things they can feel and touch, to see them learning about plants and nature — and they love being outside.”

Volunteer Su Carlile said that for the gardeners, the children are as much of a draw as the plants, especially the opportunity to pass on a love and knowledge of nature to another group of children.

“I’m surprised how all the kids are eager to pick up the worms and really get their hands dirty,” Carlile said. “We teach them a lot about nature, the correlation between us and the plants and animals in the garden, and the kids always love it, which is what makes all the hard work worth it.

“We’re excited to show off what a beautiful space that we have here. This place is a gem, and it’s been a real treasure that’s touched a lot of young lives over the years.”

Check it out

For the 20th anniversary this weekend, Mattey’s Garden will be open to the public from 11 a.m to 1 p.m. Saturday,

Sean CW Korsgaard can be reached at 757-968-1529, by email sean.korsgaard@vagazette.com, and on Twitter @SCWKorsgaard.

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