North Chatham Elementary’s garden thrives with the community

By Ben Rappaport, Chatham News + Record

The recess bell rings at North Chatham Elementary and the Grade 2 students from Susana Negroni’s class exit through the classroom door and onto the playground.

Some gather for a game of tag by the slide and others gather around the swing. But for many others, there is a new favorite activity: gardening.

The North Chatham Elementary Parent Teacher Association opened a community garden on campus, just off Lystra Road, in April. Since its launch, the students and parent volunteers who take care of the garden, take care of the flowers and vegetables, have created a special community.

“This activity is really good for the students,” Negroni said as he watched his students learn how to plant leeks in the garden. “It’s great fun to show students that they can grow their own plants at home and parents love seeing their children participate. »

Negroni said helping out in the school gardens became such a popular recess activity that she was forced to create a sign-up sheet for her students each week to ensure everyone in the class has a chance to participate.

The mastermind behind the operation is Marianne Maschal, an NCES mother with a passion for gardening. She has been in school almost every day since the garden started. She said she got the idea for the garden from other elementary schools she visited and wanted to bring it to NCES for her children and their friends to enjoy. Maschal also worked at the Marbles Kids Museum where she taught children to garden, and she has a background in exhibit design.

“Kids have really been such a big part of starting this space,” Maschal said.

Other NCES parents and teachers attest that Maschal is quick to divert praise from the garden to others. But it was she who first spoke at a PTA meeting in February and asked for funding to create the garden and beautify the school. At this point, the PTA has raised about $5,000 for the garden, most of which has been spent on mulching, renting tractors, and buying raised beds.

Now the impact of that request can be seen across campus: colorful flowers line a stone walkway at the entrance to the school, hibiscus flowers cover the outdoor patio, gourds and peas circle the periphery. from the playground and there is even more flora on the way.

Many seeds, wheelbarrows, and other gardening supplies come from Maschal’s personal garden or are purchased with funds from his own pocket. What does not come directly from her is donated by other parents for Maschal and the children to plant.

In his eyes, this is a long-term project destined to last longer than Maschal as a parent at school.

“I have two kids here now and a 3-year-old at home,” Maschal said, meaning she’s personally committed to the project for the next 10 years. “But I’m here for the long haul. I want this school garden to survive the gardener. You have to be able to pass the torch and build a community.

Maschal’s ultimate vision is to make NCES a nature-friendly retreat for students to learn gardening, pick their own flowers and crops, and find a deep appreciation for nature.

Start from nothing

When Maschal and the PTA began preparing to turn NCES into a flower garden, she said the task seemed daunting. Much of the soil was hard clay – which made planting difficult – and the plants that were present were not well cared for.

“With a place like this, which has never been gardened before, you really have to scale your expectations,” she said.

During these first months, the focus was on building biomass in the ground. Mascal said many schools are designed in an environmentally friendly way to be as easy to maintain as possible so a landscaping company can come by a few times a year.

“We’re just trying to step in and give whatever he needs the attention he needs,” she said.

The attention to the land has now paid off. What was once a swampy picnic area is now teeming with morning glory flowers and Jerusalem artichokes. Maschal said with the hardest part, she and other volunteers can focus on creating an integrated program with the garden.

“As a freshman garden, you first have to build the community to support it,” Maschal said. “We want to make these spaces full-fledged classrooms and make sure the kids are as engaged as we are.”

Maschal said teachers, like Negroni and her Grade 2 students, loved having the garden as a space to learn, beautify the school and build camaraderie.

Breaking down barriers, one seed at a time

As a bilingual teacher, Negroni said recreational gardening also reduces language barriers between students. Often during free time, Negroni says students isolate themselves based on language and culture. But in the garden, things are different. Parent volunteers in the garden agree.

Christian Hansen, a parent volunteer, comes to the North Chatham garden three times a week. She said students who gardened became their own clique at school.

“It doesn’t matter age, language, gender, nothing,” Hansen said. “These kids are like a gang of gardeners – they support each other no matter what and they’ve really bonded.”

Hansen was born in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, and her children are raised bilingual. So she said seeing cultural barriers come down in the garden was rewarding to watch. She also tried to foster these multicultural ties herself. Some of the parent volunteers get together once a month with their kids on Saturdays to help out in the garden, and Hansen always brings Mexican dishes made with NCES-grown ingredients.

She made carrot cake tamales, sweet bread or hibiscus salsa using spices and flowers found near the picnic area. Hansen said it was part of transforming the garden into a rich sensory space that the entire surrounding neighborhood can use and enjoy.

“It’s not just about a garden,” Hansen said. “She builds a community. When gardening, there is no language barrier.

If you plant it they will come

With the garden now being a staple of the NCES, other people in the area have taken notice. The school has volunteers from the United Way of Chatham County, local church groups, and Chatham County high school students who make something special out of their old playground.

But even with the volunteering, Maschal said the bulk of the work was done by North Chatham Elementary students. They decided where the raised beds should go on the playground, what flowers should go where, and even did most of the planting themselves (with a little help from parents).

“They love to dig and get dirty,” Maschal said of the students. “And giving them little moments of ownership gives them a chance to be proud of themselves and help the school.”

It helps, of course, that Maschal also likes to get dirty. As she strolls through the garden and explains all of its unique features, she can’t help but pick a weed, pull a gourd out of the mud, or reposition a flower to make sure it gets the light. adequate sunlight.

For now, that’s what the garden is for – getting dirty, building community, and making joy a top priority.

As the garden expands, Maschal plans to secure further grants, including $15,000 through the North Carolina Schools Go Outside Grant to help build a nature trail near the area of student deposit at NCES.

The PTA is also holding a fundraiser to build birdhouses to raise money for the garden and attract birds to the space to create an ecosystem. Maschal and her husband will handcraft the birdhouses to help build the NCES Songbird Sanctuary.

For more information about the garden, including how to volunteer, donate to the PTA, or contribute seeds and plants to the garden, visit or Instagram @ncesgardenclub.

Photo via Ben Rappaport/Chatham News + Record. has partnered with Chatham News + Record to bring more Chatham-focused stories to our audience.

The Chatham News + Record is Chatham County’s source for local news and journalism. The Chatham News, established in 1924, and the Chatham Record, founded in 1878, have come together to better serve the Chatham community as Chatham News + Record. Covering news, business, sports and more, the News+Record strives to strengthen community ties through compelling coverage of life in Chatham County.

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