Avery Wiley stood over a tomato patch at Mountain Elementary School in Gasquet, surveying the fruit growing fat in the Sunday sun and the bees humming among tiny yellow flowers. She took a deep breath, reached down and pulled.
Soil still clung to roots as the 8-year-old tossed an armful of tomato plants into a trailer. One by one Avery, her 12-year-old sister Maddy and other volunteers with Adventures in Gardening unearthed onion and garlic plants. Corn, squash, kale, beans and swiss chard were added to the pile.
"We made the garden because we felt it was a good thing to do," Avery said, adding that she acted as a mentor for the younger students. "Now we have to pull everything out. The
kids learned to love it and now they can't do it anymore."
Since an employee with the Del Norte Unified School District sprayed the weed killer glyphosate on the 15 raised beds, program coordinator Deb White said she wants to make sure no one eats the produce. The strawberries stayed, but volunteers stripped them of their fruit. The sunflower seeds and pumpkins also stayed, but the seeds will feed the birds and the orange-hued gourds will become jack-o-lanterns, White said.
"Our concern is the school grounds are open," she said. "People come and they help themselves. Kids who are playing, they'll go over and pick a strawberry, which they did all during the school year."
Sponsored by Building Healthy Communities and First 5 Del Norte, Adventures in Gardening, led by White and gardener Karen Rath, shows youngsters how to plant, nurture and water their garden. Since the program started 11 months ago, the students have sampled kale chips, made applesauce and raspberry jam and gave each other a pumpkin facial.
But late last month White said she found out that the Del Norte County Unified School District's grounds department had planned to spray Round-up along the school's fences and near the flowerbeds. She put up signs asking workers to keep away from the vegetable beds, the playground and the school's 24 fruit trees. The signs were ignored, White said.
"We had kept the weeds down so much there was no need for even doing such a project," she said. "We can't even compost anything with the chemical. It's all going to the dump."
White said she contacted district Superintendent Don Olson and found out a substitute groundskeeper had applied the herbicide. White, Olson and other district staff members met to ensure the district's other gardens and any future plants at Mountain Elementary remain free of chemicals.
District staff members have sprayed weed killer along school fence-lines and around garden beds for years, Olson said. They usually do it when students are out of school for the summer, he said, but they typically leave the vegetable gardens alone. The groundskeeper had sprayed Round-up at Mountain Elementary before anyone could do anything about it, he said.
"The signs went up and before we could talk about it the job was done," Olson said. "It's unfortunate that we didn't catch it. We don't want to be spraying any kind of herbicide around an organic garden."
Many Del Norte County schools have created vegetable gardens as part of the district's Nutrition Network program. But since the funding for that program ends next month, Olson said many of the schools are maintaining the gardens themselves. Mountain Elementary's garden and science teacher Joe Gillespie's garden at Crescent Elk Middle School are two examples, he said.
Olson said he met with the grounds department staff and Adventures in Gardening volunteers and they agreed not to spray around the vegetable beds in the future. He added that the volunteers will do the weeding themselves.
"Maybe we should be re-examining the practice (of spraying) in the district," Olson said. "What's it costing us to spray the fences and re-evaluate our spraying program."
In the meantime, White said she, Rath and the students will plant a cover crop, which will help the soil recover from the herbicide. Because of the contamination, White said she and Rath will have to pull up the first cover crop and plant another one.
"The kids will get a whole new education about their garden," White said. "But they worked all year and they'll come back to school and there's not going to be a fall garden like there was last year."
In addition to its vegetable garden, Mountain Elementary also has an orchard with apple, pear, plum, peach and cherry trees. The trees were purchased last year with a $500 grant from Jamba Juice that First 5 Del Norte applied for. Nearly 40 residents teamed up to plant them.
Reach Jessica Cejnar at email@example.com.