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Joys of Gardening

Lyles-Crouch Elementary School wins award from Beatification Commission.

Lyles-Crouch third grader Jack Houston has a jealous regard for the learning garden in his school's playground. He was part of a team of students, teachers and parents who helped plant and maintain it and he gets upset with some students who trample through the butterfly garden or pluck the pumpkin vine's delicate flowers.

"I like nature, so I don't like people doing that," said Houston. "I really like the caterpillars, and I like playing with them."

Last school year Houston was a member of the school's first second-grade class to plant a "three sisters garden," a Native American inspired patch of vegetables that included corn, snap peas and pumpkins. When this school year began, the next second-grade class harvested the vegetables and began a cycle that school administrators and parents hope will be a lasting feature at the school, a learning garden that was recognized last week with a Public Award for Beatification from the Alexandria Beautification Committee.

"We had never seen garden like this before," said Marie Johnston, chairwoman of the Beautification Committee. "This is something that helps the students learn and it makes the neighborhood look better at the same time."

LEARNING GARDENS have popped up all over the city. The district's first was at Cora Kelly Elementary School, and is now about 10 years old. Other schools have followed the lead, with James K. Polk Elementary School and Douglas Macarthur Elementary School adding educational ecosystems over the years. But the Lyles-Crouch garden offered a unique challenge of tight space constraints because of its south Old Town location.

"It was kind of a risk placing the garden so close to the playground," said Lori Quill, a member of the schoolís parent-teacher association. "But if the kids see someone messing with the garden, they'll say 'Don't do that.'"

The outdoor learning space is divided into several areas. A butterfly garden has mostly indigenous annual plants that attract butterflies, which allows students to learn about the metamorphosis. The "three sisters garden" gives students a hands-on experience in planting and harvesting vegetables. And four outdoor planters offer an ideal learning space for young imaginations.

"Kindergarten students planted pansies in this one,” said Quill, pointing to one of the wooden above ground planters. "They are studying patterns created by the flowers."

THE LAST FEW vestiges of the garden are still barely visible, some hearty pansies and a few chrysanthemums. So the planning phase for next year's garden has already begun. Wendy Sparrow, the school division's habitat coordinator, said that the gardens offer a wide range of teaching possibilities. Students can learn about Vincent Van Gogh's flowers, the mathematics of growing seasons and Native American eating habits.

"We wanted to coordinate all parts of the curriculum," said Sparrow. "Learning about metamorphosis is one thing. But seeing it happen in the garden gives students a much better understanding of what it means."