Claire : “We did everything here.“
Loïck : “It’s great. I love to plant tomatoes, strawberries, turnips, radishes.“
“Le Jardin extraordinaire”, the name is a reference to a song by French crooner Charles Trénet. In this middle school in a suburb north of Paris (Saint-Exupéry middle school in Ermont), students and teachers agreed on this name for their garden designed to spark the joy of learning for students who are struggling academically and to give them self-confidence. I first met the enthusiastic gardeners at an award ceremony in Paris last May. The Truffaut Foundation, started by a French gardening chain that recently decided to help gardening projects with a social, educational or therapeutic mission, had decided to award three prizes for the first time last year and the Jardin extraordinaire had won one in them. Several teachers and students had made the trip to Paris to receive their prize and had invited me to the official inauguration of their garden a couple weeks later.
The students are part of special ed section within the middle school. They follow some classes with the mainstream sections, but have special ed teachers for their core classes. In the spring of last year as the garden was getting built, it became the common theme for all classes. Before getting their hands dirty, the class had some planning to do: Math was needed to make a scale plan or design an aromatic spiral (more on that later), French to write factsheets, History to study past gardens, Art used the garden as inspiration,…
“Classroom work is very important to teach students to think abstractly,” Jean-François Jézéquel, the director of the section, explained to me. ‘Because they struggle in the classroom, the garden gives meaning to their presence. In the spring, we were hampered by the weather. Often it was raining heavily when they should have gone outside to the garden. But it was an opportunity to manage their relationship with time and to handle frustration.” In an effort to teach pre-vocational skills, the section provides workshops on hygiene, food and service that can also be related to the garden. This common project has become a great bond between students, between teachers as well as between students and teachers.
On the last day of school this past June, the official inauguration took place in presence of parents, teachers, the director of the school and many local dignitaries who had contributed to the creation of the garden in one way or another. Before the guests arrived, there was time for a last minute briefing for the welcoming team, for those who would be staffing the buffet after the speeches or those who would be reading texts.
Others would be posted in the garden to provide explanations. For example, why did you plant roses next to the vines, a guest may ask? Because they catch diseases first and serve as warning systems! What about the “aromatic spiral”, a project carried out with the help of a young German woman doing some volunteer work in France? “The idea comes from England. On the top, you have the plants that need less water and at the bottom where the water trickles down, you have the plants that require more irrigation. Stones store the heat”, explain the students. They were quite proud to share their knowledge. Even Daniel Joseph, the director of the Truffaut Foundation and a seasoned gardener, did not know that!
The Extraordinary Garden is only in its beginning stages. At the time of the inauguration, compost bins still had to be installed. One student suggested planting wheat. Wheat became a pretext to learn about making bread. The objective is that the garden be open to the outside: science teachers from the middle could bring their students to study plants, elementary schools in the area might get their own plot as a way to bring future students to the middle school early on. The garden is full of possibilities for the main gardeners and for others around them.