HOT SPRINGS – For many students, outdoor classes are always a welcome treat on those rare occasions.
But for students at Hot Springs Elementary School, it’s common to hold classes outdoors, thanks to the Hot Springs Elementary Garden Club. The Garden Club is a service program coordinated by Hot Springs resident Natalie Hesed.
“They can plant seeds, they can prepare the soil, they can water and harvest the plants, and then we eat them in class or we send them home to families,” Hesed said. “The harvest always goes free to school staff and families, especially during the school year.”
The garden club works throughrich cities, an Asheville-based nonprofit dedicated to teaching sustainable farming skills and sharing resources to promote social justice, economic viability and community resilience, according to its website. Hesed said she’s using Bountiful Cities’ instructional programs to link them to the science, math, and English/language arts curricula, and also plans to meet with Misty Varnell, NC Cooperative Extension — the Madison County Center’s 4H youth development officer to incorporate additional instruction plans.
The garden coordinator said her students tell her how much they love the garden.
“Every time I go to Ingles or Dollar General, kids come up to me and hug me and say, ‘Hi Ms. Natalie! Mom, this is my gardening teacher,'” Hesed said. “They seem to love it and thrive outdoors. I have a great passion for taking children out of the classroom to understand it in a way that some students will absorb this information better.”
According to Hesed, the garden also serves the larger community of Hot Springs.
“We supply fresh produce in a rural area where fresh produce can be a little harder to come by,” Hesed said. “The community seems very enthusiastic.”
During the summer, the garden crops are given to residents at the Madison County Group Home, Hot Springs model of single-residence medical care for people with complex health needs, as well as to the Madison County Senior Center’s aid center in Hot Springs and to Beacon of Hope Food Services, a longtime pantry currently located in Marshall.
Also during the summer, community members gather for weekly tending of the garden during community harvest days.
“We get the best participation in the community’s harvest days,” Hesed said. “People who might not otherwise cross paths meet here, and the setting provides an easy conversation starter… plants and food! Everyone can identify with plants and food, regardless of their background. I’ve heard quite a few recipes, do’s and don’ts to make a harvest a success, opinions on the taste of purple cauliflower and sharing so much knowledge.
“We also have Gather and Garden Days, which are more focused on getting together and building social relationships, as well as gardening.”
Lisa Marcy is a first grade teacher at Hot Springs Elementary.
“The community gardening program at HSES is exceptional,” said Massey. “All of the children have an incredible opportunity to be involved in growing, harvesting and tasting the food that is grown here on campus. It’s a wonderful way to make the process real and tangible for the students and give them real life experiences. Natalie Hesed is a treasure for the school, the students and the staff.”
A Colorado native, Hesed moved to Madison County in 2011. She credits her parents for instilling in her a love of nature and the outdoors.
“My mom and dad were hobby gardeners, and we had a small little garden growing up in rural Colorado,” Hesed said. “I definitely attribute my love of nature to them and made me love plants. I really got pretty serious about gardening at the homestead level and understanding cultivar selection and timing of planting about 12 years ago.”
The garden club started in 2016 when the school and a group of parents received a Whole Foods Kids grant to build some raised beds near the school.
In 2018, a private donor financed the expansion of the garden and the introduction of gardening courses at HSES. Bountiful Cities agreed to be the fiscal agent for the funds and helped launch this program. Matt Wallace was the first gardening teacher to establish the new garden area, develop the curriculum, and establish the program’s relationship with the school administration. When COVID 2020 struck, Wallace tended the garden, continued to grow fresh produce and packaged it for delivery on school buses while delivering lunch to students across the county.
Hesed took over the position of Garden Director in December 2021.
Madison Middle School partners with Partnership for Applachian Girls Education, a local nonprofit afterschool program that serves girls in sixth through tenth grade from underserved backgrounds. However, according to the garden coordinator, the Hot Springs Elementary Garden Club is the only program offered during the school term as part of the Madison County Schools curriculum.
“We’re the only program I know of in Madison County that can operate during the school day and do anything remotely close to what we do,” Hesed said. “It’s such a unique thing and I’d love to see that opportunity expand to take kids there.”
In Madison County Schools, teachers are turning to more project-based learning environments because of their potential to provide students with hands-on opportunities in more hands-on settings.
Keisha Rathbone is the titular assistant for grades three through five at Hot Springs Elementary.
“My favorite thing about the HSES gardening program is the way it gives children who may not have access to a garden the opportunity to see vegetables and flowers being grown,” said Rathbone. “Natalie creates thoughtful, interesting lessons for the children, using what is grown in the garden to stimulate students’ interest which will hopefully sow a seed for them to grow their own vegetables and flowers in the future be able.”
Hot Springs Elementary School Principal Jennifer Mills said the garden club provides an opportunity to positively impact every student at the K-5 school.
“Each of our students has access to this beautiful space,” Mills said. “Students are opening themselves up to how they can apply what they’re learning outside of the classroom by having the real-world experience of growing healthy food.”
One of the biggest problems with PAGE programming was the students’ lack of access to transportation.
Debbie Chandler currently serves as Assistant to the Program Director of PAGE.
“We couldn’t find a (full-time) bus driver this year,” Chandler said. “We hope that by spring it will be better and we will have more girls. We started our first week with about 12 girls (in the garden lab). Because we couldn’t get transportation, we lost girls because we have no way of bringing them home.”
At the Hot Springs Garden Club, ensuring more consistent garden club funding is critical to ensure the program continues.
“Would I like to expand this program to other schools and increase the staff? Absolutely,” said Hesed. “But to do that, there needs to be a bit more program security and there needs to be a means to expand the vision either to other schools or outside of school hours.”
According to Hesed, the MCS administration has expressed support for bringing an outdoor classroom to Hot Springs. Currently, the garden club is operated approximately 70% by grants and 30% by fundraising and donations, including from Hot Springs businesses such as Mountain Home Properties, Big Pillow Brewing, Hot Springs Lions Club, and a number of individual donors. According to the garden coordinator, the Farm Connection often gets involved and donates plants to the cause.
In terms of scholarships, the club receives help from Ross Young, who has devoted himself to the art of barn design in his role as County Extension Director and as a board member of the Appalachian Barn Alliance, a non-profit organization dedicated to barn restoration and renovation in Madison County has practiced writing grants.
In the summer of 2022, the garden club began a partnership with Glory Ridge, a Christian retreat center in the Walnut Community.
Also that summer, a pastor and youth group organizer from Holy Trinity Episcopal Church in Greensboro supported Hesed by helping build a shed for the club.
Hesed hopes to continue expanding the program to provide more access and opportunities for both students and community members in Madison.
While these partnerships are encouraging, Hesed stressed the importance of maintaining this momentum.
“What I would like to see is more sustained funding so that it is known that the program will continue from year to year,” Hesed said. “I would also like to see a wider range. I’d love to offer some kind of program like this that ties into curriculum standards and gets kids outside – whether it’s to help teachers access courseware and know how to use it outside, or a program where the children are taken outside by me or another person with outdoor experience and engage them outdoors on school grounds.
Most notably, Hesed said she was grateful for the support she received in reviving the garden club, which was dormant following the departure of the previous coordinator in 2020.
“I am extremely grateful to all of the people who have helped make this program what it is today and I look forward to nurturing it as it continues to grow,” said Hesed.