The School Garden
article by VANELIS RIVERA
photography by KELLY MOORE CLARK
Elizabeth Griffon heads St. Frederick Catholic High School’s garden club, a student-run, service-based project that keeps growing thanks to local grants and the support of the Monroe community.
Every day is a completely different adventure,” says Elizabeth Griffon about her experience as a science teacher at St. Frederick Catholic High School. With wavy curls colored ombre green and a few visible tattoos, Griffon is clearly the cool teacher. We sat in her classroom as her two young sons drew impressively creative dinosaur hybrids on her whiteboard. At one point, a sophomore football player who had been attending summer football practice walked into her room just to say, “Hey!” Led into teaching just a few years ago, she considers the profession more than just a job. In fact, her role as an educator has extended beyond the classroom. Right outside of her classroom windows a plot of growing vegetation is visible and marks the spot of her second classroom. Griffon heads the school’s garden club, a student-run, service-based project that keeps growing thanks to local grants and the support of the Monroe community.
Initially, Griffon wanted to be a veterinarian, but after working in a vet clinic for about four years, she decided the lifestyle wasn’t for her. At the time, she was a senior at Louisiana Tech pursuing a degree in animal science with a pre-vet concentration. Because of her exceptional class standing, she was given the opportunity to teach a science lab. “This is way more fun,” she thought, realizing she had a stronger passion for the instructional side of academia. Her first teaching job was at Ouachita Christian School (OCS) where she taught English and science courses all while working on a Master of Arts in teaching at Louisiana Tech. Currently, she is certified to teach 6th through 12th grade English and science. After three years at OCS, she jumped into the public school system teaching speech and creative writing at Ouachita High School. “I ended up getting burnout, so I took a year off,” she informs. During that hiatus, the principal at St. Fred’s approached Griffon about applying for a teaching position. They were in need of a science teacher, and she immediately got hired.
Griffon’s stepdad, Dan Lindow, started the garden club at St. Fred’s six years ago. When she was hired, he automatically ushered her into the program as a co-sponsor. Known for her writing craft, he asked her to take charge of the grants which helped the program survive year after year. Then, this past year, he took a step back allowing her to take the reins. “It was kind of gifted to me, but I love it. It’s super rewarding,” she says. When Griffon first started with the club, they had two cinder block-raised garden beds, but thanks to grants from the Junior League they were able to pay for the addition of rosemary, a variety of herbs, squash, and tomatoes. The year Griffon joined, a second garden bed was started. Grant funding has also allowed them to purchase a greenhouse, currently in need of repairs after the last hurricane, a turning compost bin, and their most recent buzzworthy addition, a beehive.
The first goal of the garden club was to educate students about the gardening process and how rewarding it can be. Griffon asks her students to better understand where food comes from, wanting them to contemplate why it matters and why we should all care. “I mean, I don’t have to tell you about the health benefits of fresh produce and why knowing what you put in your body is important,” she stresses. The second goal was to give back to the community. All the clubs and organizations at St. Fred’s are service oriented. “We have all of these blessings. We have all of these resources. We have all of this stuff,” says Griffon, explaining that it’s part of the school’s mission to improve and build up their community. So far, the garden club has donated to the Society of Saint Vincent de Paul and Grace Place Ministries. “We’re giving whatever yield we have…which the kids really love, and they’re in charge of it,” Griffon gleams, proud of her garden club members, particularly the club officers who check the garden during the summer for any vegetables they can deliver.
The club consists of about 20-25 mostly upper school students. “I’ve had several seniors who accidentally joined when they were juniors,” laughs Griffon. During a garden club meeting held at lunch, they walked in just to follow their friends and eat lunch. They ended up accidentally joining the club’s Google Classroom but ended up being some of the most active people of the
bunch. One of them became co-president and another held the office of vice president. There is a social aspect to the club which initially draws some students in. They get to work alongside their friends, listening to music while maintaining the garden. At first, some students are lost, confessing to Griffon, “I don’t know what I’m doing. I don’t know anything about plants,” but with her guidance students quickly become immersed.
Griffon finds it rewarding enough just to get the kids outside, disconnected from the everyday distractions like technology, schoolwork, and competitions. “Everything we do is by hand,” explains Griffon. Club members are responsible for pulling weeds, planting, checking soil composition, and companion planting. A significant aspect of the club is also research-based. In the classroom, they learn about native pollinator plants, native ecosystems, and how to support and encourage pollinators. Students will then research the content and find ways to apply it to the garden; in turn, helping them see their garden through a big picture lens–the more they provide food for their pollinators, the larger their crop yield, increasing the produce they can donate.
It was Griffon’s students who suggested merging the two raised garden beds, wanting to bring planting back to the ground in zones. After researching what plants should go near each other, they tilled a rectangular area the length of two classrooms and began what now is a flourishing space. Growing happily are zucchini, yellow squash, cucumbers, cherry tomatoes, a few regular tomatoes that did not enjoy the summer heat, radishes, carrots, a plethora of herbs, baseball-sized watermelons, cantaloupes, and several peppers. “And then we’ve got tons of flowers,” says Griffon. Hues of lilac, bright orange, yellow, and peach rise from the greenery in the form of zinnias, daisies, coreopsis, cone flowers, and more. “The bees love them,” exclaims Griffon.
While a few pollinators buzz happily from flower to flower, the St. Fred bees seem to be the busiest. The beehive was a purchase made possible by a grant from the Junior League of Monroe. It’s a Flow Hive made by a company based out of Australia. This hybrid hive uses BPA- and BPS-free food-grade plastic frames with premade cells on which the bees build their combs and beekeepers can pour out the honey through a spigot and faucet without having to mess with the frames. No bees get squashed during this process, as built-in gaps allow the expert pollinators to hang out while the honey is extracted. This practical hive is perfect for a school setting. Not only does it minimize contact with the bees, but it cuts a lot of the preparatory work most traditional hives are known for, including gearing up, smoking the bees, and carefully removing honeycombs, which can hurt some bees. Though the hive is small, it comes with compartments starting with the bottom box “just for the bees,” a queen separator, and the top box which holds the three flow frames. Residing in the sky-blue apiary are Italian Hybrid bees, the most recommended for first-time beekeepers due to their gentle demeanor. The bees were an anonymous donation and were introduced to their new home thanks to the parent of one of Griffon’s students who keeps hives on her property. By October, honey will be harvested and bottled.
“We’ve had a lot of support,” says Griffon, mentioning active parents, the Junior League of Monroe, the Monroe Garden Club, particularly by way of Jada Taylor, and the University of Louisiana, Dr. Joydeep Bhattacharjee, Dr. Kevin Baer, and Dr. Saswati Majumdar. She credits the success of the garden to the active level of community involvement. As a result, she has witnessed students’ sense of curiosity light up. Her own role in this multi-faceted project has provided her with the kind of “eclectic knowledge” that helps fan her creativity as an educator. There’s a very clear impact that teachers can have on students, and Griffon is doing for her students what she valued in her own teachers. After all, she says, “It’s always education for a higher purpose.”
The St. Frederick High School Garden Club is always happy to accept monetary or seed donations. Call (318)323-9636 for more information.
Thanks go out to the following local organizations offering grants that help our community flourish:
• Junior League of Monroe: Educational Mini-Grant (purchased bees and beekeeping equipment)
• Monroe Garden Club: Mini-Grant (purchased flower beds for native pollinators)
• University of Louisiana: EPA Environmental Education Grant (helped in investigating nutrient pollution and supporting native pollinators)
• St. Francis Medical Center: Community Grant (helped update science department classrooms and equipment)