Students Learn Life Gardening Skills

Peachtree Charter Middle School Health Class Gets Hands-On Lessons in Growing Organic Vegetables


Larry Burdette has found a groundbreaking way to teach his sixth grade health class at Peachtree Charter Middle School how to fish. 

He takes them to the Dunwoody Community Garden one day a week. 

Burdette decided to go the extra mile in meeting the course objective of teaching his 32 students how to choose “eating patterns that enhance energy, growth, and health.” So he applied an ancient Chinese proverb to the portion of the course plan that calls for demonstrating “awareness of personal food choices on future health.”

“You’ve heard the saying ‘Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime,’ haven’t you?” he asked me during a visit with his students last week. “Well,” he said, “That’s what I’m doing with my health class.”

He said he realized that as beneficial as it is to give students a classroom lesson about healthy eating habits, it would be even more beneficial to teach them life skills in how to grow healthy food in an organic garden.

He wanted to start an organic garden on campus, but was told that was already being discussed. However, ground hasn’t been broken and it didn’t appear that this would happen during the nine weeks of his class. Then Burdette heard about the Community Garden in Brook Run Park. The plots, as it turned out, are located just a short walk from the school and right behind it. 

So Burdette contacted Pattie Baker, the garden’s founder and its guiding light, and asked if it would be possible for his students to have a class in the garden one day a week. His goal, he said, was for the kids to do real work to learn how to grow healthy food in a healthy way.

Pattie’s answer, of course, was an immediate yes, and she quickly set about exploring how to make this happen.

She knew that it would take far too long for the children to walk to the garden through the main park entrance on North Peachtree Road. She also knew that the shortest, easiest way to get to the garden would be for the kids to come out the back of the school, down the track, over a short gate, cross a side road and enter the park through a large back gate. At this point, they would be able to see the Community Garden.

However, the gate in the park fence was bolted shut. That seemed like a minor obstacle to Pattie, who has a knack for opening doors to feed her passion for community gardening. So she called Brent Walker, city parks director, for help.

They walked the fence line looking for access options, hopping the fence in the process. Walker said there was nothing he could do about the gate, but, faced with a self-described 48-year old fence-climbing mom and a teacher determined to help his students, Walker said he could do something else. He would have workers remove a piece of fence to create a pedestrian access to the park and the garden. 

From their first trip to Brook Run when the kids ran down the hill to the garden they took to learning about growing healthy food in healthy ways like, well, a fish takes to water.

Under Burdette’s careful eye, Pattie and other garden volunteers present the students with a list of goals that Pattie that writes on a blackboard. The volunteers then put the kids in charge of determining how to achieve their assignments. They also teach them about such things as: 

  • Crushing leaves as a carbon source and mixing them with compost in the garden beds.
  • Evaluating appropriate carbon/nitrogen ratio in compost mixtures and making adjustments as needed.
  • Learning the difference between a garlic head and clove, and how to plant garlic -- which they did and which has sprouted.
  • Harvesting buckwheat seeds to save for soil-building cover-cropping next summer.
  • Identifying herbs such as cilantro and lavender and various greens, including three types of lettuce, two types of cabbage and two types of kale.
  • Transplanting vegetables (they transplanted an Asian green named tatsoi, which tastes a bit like spinach).
  • Making a hoop row cover for continual winter growing.
  • Topping beds off with composted cow and rabbit manure.
  • Learning about how vermicomposting – using red wiggler worms to make worm castings
  • Learning why organic fertilizers improve the soil and how commercial fertilizers can have some undesirable effects.


The students’ enthusiasm and ingenuity is evident with the effort they put forth each week. Some students, for example, picked up and carried a broken wheelbarrow full of compost.

They are also full of surprises. One student captured a spider and wanted to know what kind it was – harmless, as it turned out. Oh, but that spider was nothing, another child told Coach Burdette. “I sleep with my pet tarantula under my pillow … ”

Coach Burdette’s idea of applying a Chinese proverb to teaching his students a life skill is so popular at the school he says that some students have even gotten mad at him because they haven’t been able to come to the garden.

That will change soon.  When this class rotates out, the new group of students that rotates in will gain a whole new appreciation for learning about healthy food choices from the ground up.

Pattie Baker December 05, 2011 at 07:43 PM
Thank you, Tom, for your generous coverage of this story. Big thanks to community garden members Bob, Don, Karen, Nicole, Ann, Shawn and others for your involvement. Thanks to the principal for allowing the kids to come, and especially to Coach Burdette and the kids who do real work to grow real food. Also, Terry Nall sponsored one of the beds the kids are tending. it didn't exist a month ago. It is being harvested for the food pantry tomorrow.
Pattie Baker December 05, 2011 at 07:56 PM
Since I mentioned Terry, I do also want to give Robert Wittenstein a shout-out for his support of many issues relating to sustainability, including his help in starting the Dunwoody Community Garden. He is a dear friend of mine.


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