The Waldorf School is located in one of San Diego’s
grittier areas. The neighbors keep large dogs, and most houses have
bars on their windows. But at the pink-painted school, beds of bright
flowers and scented herbs greet visitors and fill the corners of
the parking lot and offices. Outside Morning Glory Room, where the
preschoolers and parents gather, there’s a luscious smell
of cooking applesauce and ripe bananas. Hand-knit objects are everywhere,
and one suspects that there are more than the usual numbers of Birkenstocks
in the area.
By the school garden, six glossy chickens, one with a magnificent
pompadour, strut with the confidence known by only by animals that
spend their days at a vegetarian facility.
The educational philosophy of Waldorf schools is based on hands-on
learning, and incorporates a holistic approach to gardening and
food in its curriculum. There is no cafeteria; Waldorf students
cook their own lunch every day in the primary grades, beginning
with preschool, and the upper grades bring lunch from home in a
The school garden is more than just a part-time project. It’s
the heart of the second and third grade curriculum, which puts the
emphasis on practical living, farming and building. The chickens
are the wards of this class. The school garden is their responsibility.
They will learn to shear wool and card, spin and weave it; they
all already know how to knit and crochet. There’s a small
model of an adobe house, and the students will make adobe bricks
and learn the basic principles of building.
They will spend time at Tierra Miguel, learning how a farm works.
Outside by the their garden, the class is practicing their end-of-year
“Mother Earth, Father Sun,” they sing. “Sister
Rain, Brother Wind, ” as the dreaming ‘seeds’
on stage pretend to transform themselves into beautiful blossoms.
A tall boy unfolds himself, and steps forward. “I,”
he proclaims proudly,” am a pussy willow.” His classmates
introduce themselves variously as other plants and flowers, then
break into a rousing game of “Pop Goes the Weasel.”
Back in their classroom, teacher Heide Austin leads them through
drawing exercises about seeds and the cycle of growth. The room
is full of plant and farm references: pine cones, hand-woven baskets,
seeds, birds’ nests and a print of The Gleaners. There’s
a sense of respect, almost of veneration, of nature.
During these two years, the students each make a garden book and
a cookbook while learning about the farm cycle of preparation, planting,
growing, weeding and harvesting. Their garden books are large and
colorful, decorated with sprawling vines and flowers. In multi-colored
writing are carefully drawn garden plans and a long paragraph of
earthworm facts and habits.
Other pages demonstrate how to make compost and mix sand and clay
to make soil, plus this note: “On December 9th 03 we seeded
the bed and on February 5 we harvested butter lettuce, green leaf
lettuce, spinach, kale, beet leaves, mustart (sic) leaves and one
big white radish.”
There are simple rhymes and more drawings.
Four seeds in a hole /
One for the rook, one for the crow/
And one to rot
And one to grow.
“The chickens ate all our plants,” a student reminisces
back in the classroom. “That was before the water went away
and everything died. But most everything was harvested.”
“It was fun spraying the bugs,” a boy reminisces.
“Are anybody’s earthworms still alive?” a girl
“Mine are,” says a curly-haired girl. “The ones
in my grandma’s garden are still alive.”
Ms Austin asks, “Who remembers how many earthworms it takes
to make an acre of earth fertile?” Everyone knows the answer—it
takes one million. They are completely comfortable with the concepts
of growing and recycling, watering and harvesting, of necessary
loss and the cycle of life.
Out at the garden, the chickens have escaped their coop and are
pecking at bugs on the ground. A third-grader shows off three heaps
of compost, describing how the quality of the compost changes with
age. The garden itself is done for the year, but plans are afoot
for next season’s planting.
“We’ll have a better garden next year because our
compost will be better,” she observes. She sprays a trail
of red ants with cayenne spray (the Waldorf garden is, of course,
organic). while efficiently herding the chickens out of the garden
and back into their coop with one sneakered foot.
A younger child runs to show a freshly laid egg, discovered out
on the playground while the hens enjoyed their brief moments of
freedom. The egg is translucent and still warm. She cradles it gently
in both hands, beaming.