Teachers, students find wellness in gardening


Graphic by Jocelyn Wang

Nikki Suzani, Features Editor

We often hear that Gunn is ripe with opportunities, ranging from elective choices, to clubs and teachers for every learning style. One part of our campus that is often overlooked is the community garden. Located behind the K building, the garden has multiple beds for plants and houses a dwarf kumquat tree. For teachers Cindy Peters and Elizabeth Matchett, the garden provides a feeling of home and opportunities to reminisce.

Peters first discovered the garden 20 years ago, about three years after it was first started by a teacher who has since retired. She enjoyed watching students work on it, walking past it every now and again as a reminder of her childhood, which she spent in a huge orchard with a half-acre garden. “We always took care of the trees and the orchard,” she said. “We had lots of fresh vegetables and fresh fruit all the time.”

Yet, half-acre orchards aren’t the only way one can find love within a garden. For Matchett, gardening was a tradition passed down through her family—something that could take root in any household, regardless of size. She recounted her childhood days in Ohio where her mother would plant tomatoes in flower beds and her family would pick and can foods from other farms. Her maternal grandmother kept true to her roots in gardening, managing to grow her own mini-garden in windowsill flower pots while living in the city.

When Matchett moved to California, she first arrived in a small space lacking the necessary light even for flower pots. She was reminded of her love for gardening when, in a house rented in Redwood City, the owner taught her to grow, water and appreciate plants once more. It wasn’t long before she bought her own house and set about having a proper garden, despite some minor hiccups along the way. “I bought a package of cabbage seeds and I hadn’t built myself a raised bed yet, so all I had was the flower garden just like my mother always did,” she said. “I went out and planted the cabbage seeds all along the front of the flower garden. And what happened was 24 of those plants grew, and when I had to harvest them I had 24 cabbages, my god. I ended up having to learn how to make sauerkraut that year.”

Thus, about eight years ago, when the two joined forces, it was truly a match: two garden-loving teachers and an available space for them to cultivate. “A long time ago, I would say eight or nine years ago, I walked by the old garden and it was always in disarray and I thought to myself: ‘that’s [somewhere] where we could do something that could be fun,’” Matchett said. “I started asking around and the person who was in charge retired, so there was no one in charge. Then, I found out that [Peters] was also interested, so the two of us got involved and started collaborating.”

In the past, there was an organic gardening club that worked with Matchett and Peters on the maintenance of the garden, and Matchett once had a connection with the workers at the nearby Common Ground Garden which allowed for the garden to be properly cared for. However, the students who championed the organic gardening club in the past have graduated and the Common Ground Garden has been shut down, so the two women, along with some of Gunn’s landscaping gardeners are left to care for it. “When we don’t have a lot of students in the club, then I use the food and I grow the food myself with my own students here in the culinary classes,” Peters said. “We plant it, we grow it, we weed it and then we cook it.”

All the things that are planted, grown and harvested can prove to be beneficial in the kitchen. “Right now, we just started tomatoes, corn and beans and we’ll be putting in some onions, carrots, lettuce and kale,” Peters said.

Peters’ favorite crop for the garden is zucchini due to its various uses in cooking, from zucchini bread to stuffed zucchini and even zucchini sauces. Matchett, on the other hand, is unsure of her favorite. Still, she loves spring when many plants are blooming and release a myriad of beautiful scents. “I have a rule in my house and my garden that when I give you water, you have to give me something that I can eat or that smells good,” she said. “Right now is the very best time of the year because my mandarin tree, orange tree and apple tree are blooming. I like to get out of my car and stand in the middle of those and just breathe all the smells that are so good with the bees everywhere. The bees make me really happy.”

Culinary students, Spanish Civilization and Culture Honors students and the organic gardening club work to maintain and support the garden, using it to cook and create nutritious dishes. “Last year, at the end of the year, we planted seed potatoes and at the beginning of this year, we harvested them,” Matchett said about her Spanish Civilization and Culture class. “Then the kids took them home and had to make something either from their own culture or a spanish-speaking culture with them.” This year, they harvested 79 pounds of potatoes originating from Peru in just one harvest, and there’s still more left to dig up. Some years, there are all shades of squash and tomatoes from San Marzano to Sweet Gold, Sun Gold, and much more.

Culinary student Anjolina Huang has been able to personally benefit from the culinary classes’ use of the garden. “The students picked tomatoes and used them to make recipes in the class,” she said. “We freeze them and then we boil them and use them in many different ways. We make calzones and sauces, and they’re very delicious.”

Even with the benefit of each harvest, working in a garden is not without difficulties. “The brown squirrels, they’re terrible,” Peters said. “They dig huge holes and tunnel. And then you have the birds and the tree squirrels, and there’s also raccoons and rabbits that come from Miranda [street] up here. Oh, we have an entire farm out there, without actually having a farm. We just have to sort of orchestrate it so that we’re working around the animals, and we’re really pretty good at netting everything and keeping it down.”

At the end of the day, Peters believes gardening can help cleanse the mind and refresh the gardeners. “When you look at wellness and balance within our lives, it’s something that really helps me a lot because it just gives me another outlet where I can be outdoors,” she said. “It’s really a healthy thing to start and be involved in.”

Matchett echoed this sentiment—when she’s feeling down, she’ll often turn to the garden for a 15-minute break and return to work feeling joy once again. “I love gardens because they forgive you,” Matchett said. “A lot of people beat themselves up if their garden isn’t perfect, or doesn’t look perfect all the time or has a lot of weeds, but a garden for me is a huge metaphor for my life. I can screw up my life all the time, but I have to remember that even if I screw it up, I can start over and try again. The garden forgives you and grows again and tries again, because the garden doesn’t judge who’s taking care of it. It just keeps giving no matter what.”

Matchett and Peters are currently looking for students to charter and join the organic gardening club, who would help maintain the garden. Students who are interested should contact Matchett and Peters at [email protected] and [email protected]