Originally published Monday, August 12, 2019 at 09:27p.m.

Under sunny skies with approaching thunder clouds last week, a group of fifth-graders at Mountain Oak Charter School roamed the back gardens where everything from carrots to cantaloupe, and plenty of other vegetables, fruits, herbs and edible flowers, are ripening for harvest.

The children’s exploration of what is boasted to be one of the largest student-created and maintained gardens and fruit orchards in the tri-city area, offered a chance to taste fresh-from-the-soil produce, touch critters integral to the growing process — ladybugs, worms, dragonflies, lizards and bees — and breathe in scents associated with a garden, including ground wood chips and compost piles.

The students were fascinated to learn the stone-path garden has its own “bug hotel” and a Monarch butterfly habitat.

Through a summer camp program and the support of various businesses, churches and garden-friendly civic volunteers, Mountain Oak has expanded its garden to 45 beds and 25 fruit trees — plums and peaches are a popular recess snack. Beyond the standard vegetables and fruits, this garden offers children the chance to eat such things as okra, kale, parsnips and radishes. They have a strawberry patch, watermelon and pumpkins. The herb space includes spices such as cilantro and red clover.

The most unusual specimen is a squash-like gourd from which the children can make loofa bath sponges.


Fifth grader Gavin Davis tries out a carrot in the gardening class at Mountain Oak Charter School in Prescott Tuesday, August 6, 2019. (Les Stukenberg/Courier)

“There is nothing better than a carrot right out of the ground,” declared Honeybee Slayton to one of her first afternoon classes.

Slayton joined the Mountain Oak faculty last year and teaches garden stewardship to first- through eighth-graders and Spanish to first- through fifth-graders. She was the instructor for the summer camp where some of these very students were active with planting these fruits and vegetables from seed.

This day’s lesson started under a canopy in the back garden with a recitation of garden rules and etiquette followed by information about the garden life cycle and the critters that live there. Slayton encouraged the students to wander; to taste-test the harvest-ready vegetables and chase butterflies.

Student Ken Sweet took Slayton’s advice and pulled out his own carrot bunch. He was delighted with the sweet flavor.

But he was quickly distracted by a grasshopper — it escaped before he could admire it up close.

Kira Finch also was awed by the taste of the carrots.

What Kira said she liked most, though, was that this is an all-natural garden, with the plants an attraction to birds, bees and all sorts of bugs.

Student Benjamin Schwan said he appreciates that he and his classmates are able to play an integral role in this garden’s growth cycle.

“It’s amazing. And peaceful,” Benjamin said.

The children quickly caught Slayton’s fever for the direct link to their food, and the beauty of nature.


Gardening teacher Honeybee Slayton goes the edible parts of plants with students in the 5th grade gardening class at Mountain Oak Charter School in Prescott Tuesday, August 6, 2019. (Les Stukenberg/Courier)

At camp, and likely during her afterschool programs, Slayton said she taught the children about edible flowers, allowing them to make their own “super amazing” flower gelatin dessert. She also taught them the value of such things as worms, whose droppings are “nitrogen gold” for the garden soil.

A few students were left agape when Slayton explained cardboard can be recycled as a “weed barrier.”

Mountain Oak is not the only school in the area incorporating gardens, or farm-to-table initiatives, into their curriculum.

Many district, charter and private schools in the area, as well as around the nation, are becoming more conscious of the need for outdoor education and gardens to enrich students’ educational experience.

Nationally, there is increasing attention to the need to get children active and outdoors, with gardening a venue to those goals, said Darcy Hitchcock, co-founder of the Sustainability Alliance in the Verde Valley.

If children grow food in a garden, they are likely to eat it, a far better choice than processed foods they buy in a store, Hitchcock suggested.

“Just having access to nature is so important to one’s sense of well-being,” Hitchcock said.

Slayton concurs.

Her hope is that this garden becomes not just a school project, but a community one, complete with the possibility of culinary classes in the future. Students and staff will certainly be welcome to harvest produce, but Slayton, too, hopes to host some sales that will further support this endeavor.

For certain, Slayton said, the school is all about sustainability and assuring nothing goes to waste, or weeds.

“This is really, really fun,” said Slayton, an ebullient teacher who talks fast with big gestures. “Just to see the looks on their faces — the wonder. WOW!

“We all become children in a garden.”

Follow Nanci Hutson on Twitter @HutsonNanci. Reach her at 928-445-3333 ext. 2041.