Three teachers led Sandy Springs’ Riverwood International Charter School to bringing an award-winning outdoor garden and classroom coming to fruition. The garden won the District 3 Fulton County Citizens Commission on the Environment award on Oct. 16.

The teachers involved included Patti Lawrimore, chair of the science department; Elissa Oliver, a chef and culinary arts teacher; and Isaac Seals, a science teacher and coach.

From left, Chef Elissa Oliver, Coach Isaac Seals and Science Department Chair Patti Lawrimore with the District 3 Fulton County Citizens Commission on the Environment award for Riverwood International Charter School’s garden. (Special)

“The garden project is the consummate opportunity to bring a diverse group of students together to learn important…lessons with real-world applications, while also benefiting the school and greater Sandy Springs community,” said Lawrimore. “We are grateful to receive recognition for this project.”

The garden features raised beds, herbs and annuals, vegetable plants and fruit trees and serves as an outdoor educational space for all Riverwood students.

The award was given by the FCCE, a citizen advisory group appointed by the Fulton County Board of Commissioners that aims to increase awareness of environmental issues. Awards are given to those who have excelled at improving the environment within Fulton County.

Due to the construction of new buildings at Riverwood, a previous outdoor garden closed in 2015. Seals and his students wrote and submitted a proposal and budget for a new garden. With support from the Riverwood Foundation, a nonprofit that supports the school’s efforts, and grants from both the Lowe’s Toolbox for Education program and the Whole Kids Foundation by Whole

Foods, the new, advanced garden space broke ground in May 2018.

Lawrimore, Oliver and Seals worked together in conjunction with the Riverwood Foundation to seek additional funding to sustain and expand the garden, and in 2019, the garden got further grant funding from Fiskars Project Orange Thumb and Scott’s Gro More Good Grassroots.

Q: How did you get involved with the garden?

Lawrimore: When I started at Riverwood five years ago, there was a small garden. When construction demolished the site, we decided to scale the project up from four to 16 beds, 14 fruit trees, a pollinator garden and an [Americans With Disabilities Act-compliant] raised garden annex.

Oliver: We had the idea to collaborate…and create a farm-to-table experience.

Seals: Lori Leech, Riverwood’s first environmental science teacher, came up with the idea for the garden about 15 years ago. Lori and I worked together on the initial garden and I have been involved with it since that time.

Q: What has been the biggest hardship and success with the garden?

Lawrimore: We do not have a convenient water supply, but the kids are working on solving the problem by developing a solar power irrigation system and a water collection system off of the dugouts.

Oliver: Keeping up with all the products that come out of the garden and keeping up with it outside of school hours. Culinary gives all compost for the garden and so there is close to zero waste.

Seals: The demolition [of the original garden] created a hardship because it was done without any warning after my environmental science classes had planted their fall garden. This demolition also destroyed the irrigation system, which was not replaced in the new garden.

Q: What is your favorite memory involving the garden?

Lawrimore: I loved the construction phase, the kids using tools to build and layout the garden. They were so collaborative and their problem-solving skills were amazing.

Oliver: The day we got our first grant and got to break ground!

Seals: When my…students wrote the proposal for and designed the layout of the current garden and were involved in the actual groundbreaking and building.

Riverwood International Charter School’s award-winning outdoor garden and classroom. (Special)

Q: What is next for the garden?

Lawrimore: [We] are hoping to expand into a walking trail and native plant areas and seating areas for small group instruction [and] discussing, and developing the retention pond and making the outdoor learning accessible for the entire campus.

Oliver: New fall [and] winter crops and we just received another grant to expand.

Seals: I expect that each class will be creative in learning about the process and how it all relates to the environment around us.

Q: What do you hope the students learn from the garden? What do you think gardening teaches students?

Lawrimore: I hope they get an understanding of the interconnectedness of our world: the soil, food, pollinators. Even understanding that diversity is so important for resilience and stability in an ecosystem then translating that into the human realm.

Oliver: I think it teaches them time management, discipline, and where their food comes from. I hope they learn that planning, planting, growing and harvesting your food is a cool thing to do. It is economical and makes an impact on our Earth.

Seals: The curriculum and garden teach sustainability, ownership and pride in their work, physical activity, healthy eating and changes in their lifestyle. They actually get to plant a bulb and a seed and see that grow into a plant.

Hannah Greco

Hannah Greco is writer and media communications specialist based in Atlanta.