CAMDEN, NJ — Franly noticed it first.

The 5-year-old boy spotted purple among the many shades of green of his pre-K classroom’s indoor garden on a recent Monday in February.

It was the first sign that the wildflowers were growing on schedule. 

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“He pointed it out before we even saw it,” Shannon Ratajski, a teacher in the city for the past eight years, told TAPinto Camden. “We rushed over to see.”

The garden joins other budding details inside the classroom. Bulletins and arts and crafts along the wall. And the recently-planted sunflower on the windowsill.

However, the miniature garden will go beyond aesthetics — the wildflowers the only part of it you won't be able to eat once they grow — and eventually extend to outside the classroom as well. 

“Right now we're growing bell peppers, poblano peppers, roma tomatoes, and beefsteak tomatoes,” said Ratajski, a teacher for over 20 years and leader of Veteran Memorial Family School’s Green Team. “We have kale that we already started, and chives, chili peppers and carrots too.”

Although the classroom’s garden is maintained year-round at the Camden school, it was earlier this year that the opportunity came to expand it through a New Jersey grant program.

On Feb. 12, Veterans Memorial — a school that was at risk of closing nearly a year ago — was one of 42 New Jersey institutions and districts to receive a boost for their sustainable idea.

It was the only one in the city, one of three schools in Camden County and one of just 12 in the Garden State to get the $10,000 award from Sustainable Jersey for Schools. 

Ratajski said the Camden Children’s Garden Grow Lab, a school-based program that teaches elementary school children math and science skills through horticulture, makes the garden possible and helped in applying for the additional money as well. 

She said she was “completely in shock” when she found out she received the grant and “couldn't wait” to see it come to life. With a background in fine arts and painting, she was unsure her written mission would translate as well as it did to the grantees.

Sustainable Jersey Executive Director Randall Solomon said the grants exist to foster initiatives that make, "schools better stewards in their communities" and in Camden's case provide "healthy, locally-grown food" for a city historically known as a "food desert."

"There are corner stores and things like that in Camden, but they don't always have the best or fresh produce," said Ratajski. "So to find produce, like we're growing is really hard for the residents here in the city."

Growing in a city

Tomatoes “don’t like” cucumbers — as in they do not grow well in proximity. There are cold-weather fruit and warm-weather fruit. Containers are critical in avoiding soil contamination while transferring a plot.

All lessons Ratajski has learned over the years in growing food. She said her love for gardening came from observing her grandmother tend to her rose garden when she was at the age her students are now.

Today, she maintains her own garden at home, as does her daughter. 

“I really want to be able to grow broccoli... I haven't had much success with that yet,” she admitted. “So we are going to try that again. Tomatoes are my favorite, you can cook a lot with them but I know the kids want to grow lots of potatoes too. They love their French fries.”

Although her classroom garden is currently housed within an annex behind the main building, it will ultimately head outdoors.

At the end of March, she will begin planting “cold weather plants” like kale and broccoli, gradually relocating the rest of the garden permanently as spring begins.

When done, it will be transferred to three locations outside — including the school's courtyard and outside a new Welcome Center slated to open later this month.   

A garden club made up of 20 or so students will take on garden duties, with the help of Veteran Memorial teachers.

Ratajski said she is currently planning out the cooking aspect of the garden. Once harvesting comes around she wants to "maximize the food options."

“I plan to apply for the $2,000 grant now, I think there’s more we can do,” she said, explaining that they could still qualify for more money. “We have many students that are bilingual, many that speak Spanish but also Arabic. We've also had students that use sign language, so to actually hold the fruits and vegetables in their hand makes a big difference. To talk about the taste, the texture, the colors...there is so much language that can come out just by dealing with food. It's so universal, it's something that we all enjoy."

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