CUSD sustainable gardens teem with life, enthusiasm

How does your garden grow? In the case of schools in the Claremont Unified School District, the answer is beautifully.

District Garden Coordinator Dessa D’Aquila has been able to put in more hours this year than in the past—anywhere from 30 to 36 hours a week when school is in session—thanks to a combination of district funding and grant money, namely some awarded to San Antonio High School’s Food Justice program. Sustainable Claremont also contributed $2,000 towards the position.

The boost in hours has afforded Ms. D’Aquila, who is in her third year with the district, greater balance. Once, she juggled four jobs. Now, aside from one day a week spent working at a local bakery, she can focus exclusively on tending the district’s blossoming garden programs.

More hours means greater impact. Ms. D’Aquila is proud of the progress made this year at sites such as Vista del Valle and Oakmont elementary schools.


A greener view

Two work parties, staffed by school volunteers, members of Sustainable Claremont and the congregants of a neighborhood church, have yielded five new raised garden beds at Vista del Valle. Rustic stone borders surround the beds, which are roughly five by 10 square feet.

The stones come from Claremont’s old Service Center property, which this year was sold to a home developer. It was a true community effort, with Vista kids sorting the rocks and a local mason donating a cement mixer and his expertise.

Ron Mittino, head of Sustainable Claremont’s Schools Action Group, participated in the second Vista work party and is delighted by the results. The stone borders are an improvement over the wooden ones previously installed, which tend to rot over time. They are also quite picturesque.

“They are beautiful. The feel of the stones is really aesthetically pleasing,” Mr. Mittino said. “And it’s nice that we used local materials. They are Claremont rocks.”

The new beds will allow Vista to expand its garden-scape, which currently features strawberries, grapevines, arugula, rainbow chard and rosemary as well as ornamental plants such as roses and irises.

“It’s gratifying to see that the hard work of many, many folks, including students and parents, as well as cooperation between CUSD, Vista’s staff and Sustainable Claremont, has resulted in a lovely and thriving garden for the Vista community,” Mr. Mittino said.  “The kids love it, and that’s the payoff.”

Crops from the garden, as well as fruit from Vista’s orchard program, don’t go to waste. Vista families and staff members often harvest a few herbs or greens to take home. The nasturtiums that grow in profusion in the Vista garden were notably used for salads at the Claremont Community Foundation’s annual fundraising dinner held at the Padua Hills Theatre earlier this month.

Vista is swiftly turning into one of the most environmentally forward schools in the district. On Tuesdays, students are encouraged to bring reusable lunch containers, reusable water bottles and cloth napkins. They are also taught to sort waste for recycling and composting.

As a result of these efforts, the school was recently selected to be one of the top three winners in Grades of Green’s annual Trash-free Lunch Challenge. Sponsored in part by the Sanitation District of Los Angeles, the competition aims to help LA County schoolchildren reduce the amount of food-packaging waste heading for landfills. The winning school, to be announced in April, will receive a $1,000 education grant. The second- and third-place schools will receive $750 and $500, respectively.


Beautiful biomes

Oakmont has long been known as Oakmont Outdoor School because of its focus on nature as a hothouse learning environment. With the ribbon-cutting for the school’s Oakmont School Biome Garden held this past Valentine’s Day, the school has gotten even more outdoorsy.

In September of 2009, the school introduced an environmentally based curriculum, “Learning in the World’s Biomes,” which over time immerses students in each of the earth’s six major biomes or ecological communities. This year, the Oakmont community worked together to bring the lessons to life by constructing landscapes representing three of California’s natural biomes: Chaparral, Oak Woodland and Desert.

The biomes project was an exercise in cooperation, involving more than 250 hours of work by volunteers hailing from Oakmont, Sustainable Claremont and Pitzer College.

“This entire project was made possible only because of the community and their dedication to seeing it come to fruition,” Ms. D’Aquila said in a February interview.

Landscape architect Andrew Bentson and master gardener Blake McCallion of the BAM water-wise landscaping company were an invaluable part of the process, donating untold amounts of know-how and elbow-grease. The Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden donated the plants used in the biomes, while Wolfinbarger, Inc. contributed gravel and decomposed granite.

The ambitious project was funded via a $2,000 grant through the Metropolitan Water District. Three Valleys Municipal Water District kicked in another $300 and Sustainable Claremont contributed $500 to the project.

“It’s amazing that this happened,” Mr. Mittino said.

The plants, helped along by recent rain showers and a drip irrigation system, have grown tremendously since they were put in place in February. After about a year, the drip system will be removed and the plants—all hardy natives—will thrive on their own.

Oakmont students are already out among the biomes, gaining exposure to the natural world while learning. For details, visit


Moving forward

While CUSD has shown growing support for environmental education in recent years, it is uncertain how much money will be allotted to Ms. D’Aquila’s position for the 2014-2015 school year. The board assesses how much it can contribute toward the position of gardening coordinator each spring, a process Assistant Superintendent of Human Resources Kevin Ward says will begin soon.

Ms. D’Aquila, whose job takes her to virtually every Claremont school, hopes that the district will continue to see the value of school gardens for nurturing whole-child development.

“Not every kid gets to go to the beach in the summer, or go skiing,” she said. “But no matter what their socio-economic background, Claremont students all get the chance to be out in the garden.”

Ms. D’Aquila and Claremont schools will take an active role in the city’s sixth annual Earth Day celebration, set for Saturday, April 26 from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. The event, which is also presented by Sustainable Claremont and the Interfaith Sustainability Council, will feature demos, workshops, kids’ activities, live music and solar boats stationed along Second Street in the Claremont Village.

—Sarah Torribio


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