Rainbow Chard

It is November and the chard still grows. The leaves are crinkly, shiny green. Their petioles, the stalks attaching the blade to the stems, are white, yellow, or red. My students look at these plants that grow bigger than their faces. It does not take much for them to appreciate the good in things. They have sweeter dispositions than their typically developing peers. They can name the colors, though sometimes what they say is unintelligible. Even though they are adults, they are not quite ready for what awaits them in the world. But everything they look at is lovely.

The chard is left over from the late spring, April, maybe May, planting. We sowed the seeds in the soil. We have no greenhouse on campus to nurture and protect the seedlings. Nothing to protect new growth from the air of Los Angeles. The exhaust from vehicles, airplanes, shipping, manufacturing, and other sources; the effects of overpopulation coupled with the extremities of a Subtropical-Mediterranean climate, all of this alters the mood, development and production of living things. Over the summer is the best time for the garden to flourish after the fall and winter planting. Diligent maintenance is necessary to prevent stress from the hot conditions, followed by the dry Santa Ana winds.

In the summer the sun shines more than six hours a day, the minimum a garden needs for optimal growth. I do not teach in the summer. The plants and seedlings must be watered carefully, judiciously, to prevent run-off and waste. Summer school is only half-day, 8 am until 12 pm, and is recommended for all students with special learning needs, including my students, to attain the critical skills or self-sufficiency goals essential to their continued progress. There is no time to visit the garden. They learn their colors in the classroom, behind desks. If they can grip a pencil, they will trace, copy from a model, or write independently. If not, they will match word cards with colors, or colors to colors. They will watch the teacher model and receive hand over hand manipulation to point or match.

There is no horticulture class in the summer. Only academic subjects: language arts, mathematics and science. It’s district policy. I tried to find a fellow staff: a teacher, a grounds worker, or a health care assistant, to take time to water in the summer. No one was able to commit. They are too busy flushing tubes and changing diapers. They are too busy implementing standards-based lessons for students with moderate to severe disabilities. It is superfluous to harvest, maintain, and enjoy the garden. In the summer, no one will see its colors.

Sow seeds about a half an inch deep and one to two inches apart. I model this for the students. Take your finger or a pencil and poke a hole in the soil. Pinch and drop the seeds into the hole, cover lightly, then water gently. They are learning soft skills, such as coming to class on time, being ready to work (gloves and hats, please), and following directions that contain at least two-steps. Be careful not to expose any seeds or wash away any soil. If necessary, the students are assisted by staff. Sometimes the students do not have patience and drop all the seeds at once onto the soil. At this point, their fine and gross motor skills are pretty much set but can regress if they don’t practice. Some staff also lack fortitude and do not understand why students participate in activities that they may never do again. They ain’t going nowhere, someone says. The leaves grow in a cluster, and the clusters are thinned to the strongest seedlings. The weaker seedlings are cut off at soil level or are pulled from the root, disposed of or thrown in the compost bin. Staff shows the students how to eat from the garden. Pull, rinse, eat. Some pull and eat, the ones who cannot wait to rinse. They learn by doing.

Chard can grow in crowded conditions, but the leaves will be smaller and may bolt or go to seed more quickly. Successful seedlings will be six to twelve inches from each other in rows eighteen to twenty-four inches apart. This gives room for growth, circulation and easy access. The buses line up in two rows when they drop off students and pick them up: one row at the front and one row at the side, on the ramp. Some staff talk to students as they push them in their wheelchairs or lead them in their walkers, Which one is your bus? Many do not. Students are loaded and unloaded. Most are ambulatory. According to district policy, the students who need extra support wear safety vests during transport only. The vest must be put on prior to boarding the bus. It works like a harness, with straps over both shoulders, another strap over the chest below the breast, and a hip strap low on the student’s lap. The zipper is located in the back so the student cannot tamper with it and will remain secure while the vehicle is in motion. The vest is then strapped to the seat mount and the bus seat belt must also be put to use. They are strapped in twice. The students, many with their harnesses still on, are led to classes at arm’s distance, to help manage their behavior. If a student tries to wander off after being unloaded, staff simply grabs the straps to redirect or guide him or her to the desired destination. Or, some argue, for safety purposes if the student has a history of harm to self or others via biting, kicking, hitting. The bus routes change from season to season but by November the schedule is pretty much set until the summer comes again. However, some students will age out, once they turn twenty-two, and the bus will no longer pick them up. They will have to enter into an adult day program.. They will no longer have access to the school’s garden. We will no longer be a part of the plan.

Chard grows best in well-worked, well-drained, rich, light soil–compost or nitrogen-rich amendments such as cottonseed, feather or blood meal. Chard thrives in full sun, but will tolerate partial shade. In horticulture, there is a protocol to maximize the possibilities for optimal nutrition and growth. During the year, we put banana peels, apple cores, and shredded paper in the compost bin. Coffee grounds are saved from the staff cafeteria. We feed the worms the same things, except not too much coffee or citrus. Sometimes we will put leftover student lunches in the bins. We must teach the students to utilize the resources they have. Their education must carry over from the comprehensive campus.

About twenty percent of the student population is made up of students with special needs, also known as exceptional students. They range anywhere in the spectrum from the highly gifted to the more severe. About twenty percent of that twenty percent attend this special school. Then about twenty percent of the special school population has special feeding instructions. Not all of these students attended a comprehensive campus. But many have.

Some students with special needs receive a different menu. Soft foods, mostly carbohydrates, are sometimes blended. Blended fruits with nutritional drinks and shakes high in whey protein. Blended spaghetti: pasta, tomato and red meat sauce. With the help of gravity, those with gastrostomy tubes are fed a special mix of nutrients, shipped by the crate and distributed via the nurse’s office, directly into their intestinal system. Then there are the students with typical appetites. Before coming here, they had attended a comprehensive campus, a school with a football team, cheerleaders, pep rallies, dances, where a special class, self-enclosed and exclusive, was designed just for them. They want the same things they had at the big school: the Tex-Mex beef soft tacos, Yellow Mellow corn, or the Forever Tostada Salad in full form, like their typically developing friends. They do not understand why only soft, mushy foods are served here at this school. These students with typically functioning appetites prepare and eat the greens from the garden. They grow, harvest, wash, and chop. They drizzle honey mustard over the leaves. They set the table and serve each other. They practice their manners and say please and thank you. I show them different ways to eat the leaf, like lettuce in a cheeseburger with a whole-wheat bun, or stir fried with garlic and a little bit of sea salt. Not all the students at this school are on a liquid diet.

Other than a few holes from caterpillars or curled leaves from aphids and miners, the surviving plants have no major problems. But the creeping stems, grasses and barley, invade the garden. They are stronger and will take all the nutrients from the chard if they are allowed to flourish. There is something satisfying in loosening the soil with a trowel or hand tiller, and pulling these shrubs out. To dig the fingers in the loamy earth, fill the nails with soil and smell the broken terrain. To grab at the taproot, and tug on the hairs. There is something primal, when the land won’t let go, when the ground pulls back as I tug. The students grasp at the blades, the bulbs, the flower, unable to get to the roots, the stem, the nodes. The weeds will grow back three-fold, especially those with adventitious roots, or lateral roots with nodules, creeping under the soil.

This chard that is left will provide another harvest. If I tend to it properly it will behave like a perennial and last for several years. And yet, Los Angeles has an average of thirty-five days of precipitation annually, typically during November through April. Winter is coming, and no one will tend the garden during the flurry of the holiday season. The campus will be closed, alarms set. To save water, keep weeds at bay and reduce risk of disease, we will lay mulch. Throughout the year we rake and sweep leaves from the mulberry, apricot and lemon trees. We place them in the leaf bin to decompose. We turn the leaves to help it break down into mulch. When tomato season is over, or the lettuce goes to seed or flower, we pull them out and cut them into smaller pieces to mix with the leaves. The mulch will act as a barrier, blocking the light and suffocating the weeds. In turn, the soil will retain moisture and therefore, will not need to be watered as much, especially in the summer when evaporation is at its peak. The layer of mulch will eventually decompose and add more nutrition to the soil

When we return from winter break, the soil must be tilled and weeded. Leaves must be raked, worms must be fed, mulch must be turned. And new seedlings must be sown. We will check for pests and return back to routine. Maybe the leaves will curl. Maybe they will have holes. Maybe they will survive the neglect, but the weather is mild and it may rain. Hopefully everything will still be green. The students will recognize the color green. They will match the word green to green. They will point to a variety of green things. Or else, go fallow.

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