Growing the Future
School Garden Thrives with Extension, Community Support
Story by Leah Barbour • Photos by Kevin Hudson
After a tragic car accident in 2017 led to the deaths of two Central Elementary School students, school leaders raised money to support their funerals. Their efforts inspired many South Mississippi residents in Lucedale and across George County.
So much money was raised that the extra funds were designated to build a school garden in memory of the girls, Terra and Sierra.
“My first call was probably to Mr. Heath Steede with Extension,” remembers Principal Zach Bost. “He knows everything there is to know about growing crops and everything related to it. I didn’t know him before I called, but he had already had some conversations about a garden with someone at the school. So I called him.”
Steede, the agricultural Mississippi State University Extension Service agent and county coordinator, was willing and ready to take on the challenge.
“I’ve been with Extension for about 7 years, and, when I told the school what I needed, when I told the kids what I needed, everybody took it and just ran with it,” he explains. “But I told Zach, ‘I can make this place grow stuff, but you’ll need someone else to make it pretty.”
Bost enlisted the help of the local parent-teacher organization and area businesses to donate to and support the garden, and, to make it beautiful, he recruited Landon Rucker, an alumnus of Central Elementary and an MSU sophomore currently enrolled in the university’s landscape architecture program.
“Landon has been pivotal. What you’re looking at is basically his design,” Bost laughs. “But Mr. Steede literally built every box you’re seeing here. What Extension is doing here is making a foundation for a program that could—and should—be done across the country.”
Satsuma trees and magnolias were planted. Hummingbird feeders and ferns were hung. Now, teachers and administrators are taking the children outside and letting them take an active role in their own garden. They’re proving that working, learning, and playing together outside fosters social and academic success.
Zach Bost, Principal
Close to 60 children ages 5 to 12 are participating in the Garden Club, but all students at the school—more than 600—are benefiting, no matter which school club they’re in. Garden Club students are running outside to water their plants and flowers, check the growth, and prepare for harvest. Students in the Building Club are creating birdhouses to attract wildlife. Children in the Cooking Club are discovering how to prepare fresh dishes with ripe produce plucked from the garden.’
And whether they are studying on the benches or doing their homework in the gazebo, all the children are finding ways to enjoy and learn in the beautiful, peaceful space.
They’re already reaping the benefits of outdoor instruction, school-grown fruits and vegetables, and an environment that serves as one of the school’s best settings for instruction and recreation. Students are discovering how to apply the academic skills they learn inside as they play and study outside.
The school formally welcomed George County School District school board members to the garden in early May. With about 20 Garden Club members of all ages on hand to show the adults what they’d done and how they were doing it, excitement was in the air.
“We did all of this with Extension,” Bost explains. “What Extension is doing with our kids can happen at every school in the state. They’ll give you the expertise you need to grow it, and they’ll give you the nutrition information you need to eat it. We can call Extension any time we need them, and they give our kids the experience of planting plants and reaping the harvest.
“We’re far from done,” he continues. “Our kids are going to get the total learning experience by making their own decisions. They’ll harvest and eat and begin the cycle again, and Extension will be here with us every step of the way.”
Mississippi State University Extension Service Agent Heath Steede in George County, Mississippi, tells why he helped plant and grow a garden at Central Elementary School in Lucedale.