FARRAGUT, Tenn. -- Farragut’s eco-friendly outdoor classroom provides the residents of the East Tennessee town of 22,000 with hands-on environmental learning opportunities.
Visitors to the classroom can learn about stormwater management, water quality, composting, and environmental conservation, all while growing delicious fresh produce.
The outdoor classroom is within walking distance of Farragut High School and connects to the town’s popular greenway system. The classroom serves as a neighborhood center, and the space is host to civic engagements as well as a multitude of educational events. Planning for the classroom began in 2010 with funding provided by a $2,000 Tennessee Recreation and Parks Association grant, as well as a $19,345 grant from the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation’s Green Development Project.
The project was envisioned as serving the dual purpose of offering both recreational and educational opportunities, and the classroom has been successful in doing just that.
Learning about green development
The outdoor classroom is a prime example of green Outdoor Classroomdevelopment and stormwater runoff best management practices, all which help the classroom’s vegetable garden stay healthy. There are multiple types of pervious surfaces across the classroom’s trails, paved walkways, and parking areas.
The parking area was constructed using permeable pavers that allow water to flow through. The water then flows down a slight hill and into the rain garden, which is a rainwater-fed native planted area. Bioretention areas are incorporated into the landscape around the classroom and demonstrate natural methods of improving water quality. Bioretention is the process of removing contamination and sediment from stormwater runoff, and these basin areas are characterized by seven features:
• A grass buffer strip that reduces runoff velocity and removes suspended solids;
• Vegetation that helps to remove water and excess nutrients;
• A shallow ponding area that provides capacity for excess stormwater storage;
• Mulch that serves as an organic layer where microbes degrade petroleum-based pollutants, as well as reducing soil erosion;
• Engineered soils that support vegetation growth and allow for nutrient and water uptake;
• A sand bed that allows for drainage and aeration of planting/engineered soils; and
• An underdrain system that transports excess treated water to storm drains.
The actual covered classroom area is a uniquely shaped, slanted-roof pavilion. Water runs down the roof and ends up in a 1,500-gallon cistern, which is an above-ground container used to harvest rainwater.
The cistern was paid for by the Green Development Project grant, and funded components include installation of the system (tank, filters, etc.), the interpretive signage, and the decorative mural on the side of the cistern. The rainwater that is collected in the cistern is used to water the classroom’s vegetable garden, which was funded by the Tennessee Recreation and Parks Association grant. This grant covered materials for the raised beds, compost for soil, seeds, and plants. The classroom’s built elements, including the raised beds, the compost storage box, and the picnic tables were all projects completed by Eagle Scouts. The rich soil used for the vegetable garden is enhanced with horse manure supplied by Shangri-La Therapeutic Academy of Riding, a local non-profit therapeutic riding facility in Lenoir City.
Town residents and local businesses worked together to get the classroom’s vegetable garden growing. Volunteers and Farragut stormwater division staff members started planting the vegetable garden in August 2015. All plants were purchased locally, from Dixie Lee Nursery and Greenhouse, and in under a year cabbage, kale, bok choy, cauliflower, brussel sprouts, lettuce, broccoli, and peppers are all thriving in the garden.
Andrea Valdyke, an enthusiastic outdoor classroom volunteer, said “Dixie Lee Nursery has really stepped up for this community and the outdoor classroom. They continually help us with the edible garden, either through much needed advice or demonstrations. We really appreciate their guidance and are extremely happy to be learning from them.”
The Knox County Master Gardener Program also serves as an important resource to the Outdoor Classroom, providing technical guidance and gardening expertise.
From a learning garden to real-world solutions
The edible garden, managed by Valdyke and her two Girl Scout cadet daughters, has been a valuable and productive learning experience. With the help of Farragut stormwater division staff, Valdyke and the girls have taken the garden to a fully functioning edible garden that grows produce year-round. Between August 2015 and April 2016 the garden donated approximately 22 pounds of produce to Faith Lutheran Church – Shepard of Good Hope Food Pantry. This donation is significant, particularly considering that in Tennessee, one out of every five residents is food insecure, which means that at some point they have experienced difficulty in acquiring sufficient food due to a lack of money or ability to get to the grocery store. Every pound of food donated helps to address this need.
Producing those 22 pounds of produce required some innovation. Initial struggles included determining when to harvest vegetables and keeping nuisance animals and bugs away. Some of the vegetables did not grow to the size that people are used to seeing in the grocery store. For instance, cauliflower grown in the edible garden was smaller, so Andrea and the girls were not sure about the appropriate time to harvest it and as a result some of the cauliflower ended up maturing too much to be donated.
Valdyke said, “It is good for kids to learn how to deal with making failure into a success. Volunteering in this outdoor classroom has helped them learn new skills and gain confidence.”
The cauliflower provided an important lesson that many children don’t get to learn: homegrown vegetables are not necessarily the same size and shape as what is seen in the grocery store, but they often taste even better. The young gardeners learned from the initial hurdle and applied it to other similar situations in the garden.
During the winter, Valdyke and her daughters worried that their plants would freeze. After some creative problem-solving, they decided to use large pickle buckets purchased from a restaurant for $2 each. The buckets were placed over the individual plants. Some of the buckets were also used to collect rainwater when the cistern was winterized and unusable.
Lori Saal, the Farragut stormwater coordinator, said “The kids are starting to look at how to reuse things. They are being creative and thinking outside the box.”
The outdoor classroom has gathered momentum in its first year and has plans to become even bigger and better, increasing the amount of produce grown and donated.
Saal said, “We are incredibly thankful for the leadership and innovative thinking of Andrea Valdyke and the girls and boys she has led along this gardening journey. They are the reason this garden is successful. We are lucky to have such a dedicated group of volunteers to maintain the garden and we look forward to continuing our relationship with them for years to come.”