Just a few years ago, the ground that now houses a thriving organic garden on the school’s campus was more of a curiosity than a passion for Jorge and scores of other students. He explains, “When I got to the school I saw this empty field, and then out of nowhere I saw how it was starting to be built up. I had Mrs. Galleher in another class, so I asked her and she told me about the garden class and explained it. At first I was just curious. Then I started learning and I fell in love with it.”
When asked if what he’s learned in gardening class has changed the way he eats, Chula Vista High School senior Jorge Sanchez responds emphatically. “Totally!” he exclaims. “Every time I take a bite out of anything I start thinking, ‘how much sugar does this have?' or ‘where did this come from - from a tree or a bush or from a machine and it has a wrapper on it with nutrition facts?’ Good food doesn’t have nutrition facts on labels.”
Jorge also explains that as a result of what he’s learned in class, he has cut sugary drinks like soda out of his diet, and is working to cut out sugar in general as much as possible.
Mrs. Maria Galleher is a teacher at Chula Vista High School, who was honored as the school’s Teacher Of The Year in 2018, in no small part due to her efforts to build the garden and its associated classes.
Maria Galleher, and the Chula Vista High School Garden
Chula Vista High School teacher Maria Galleher (second from right) with students in the school garden.
Most mornings, Maria Galleher and a couple dozen students can be found in the school garden. She gently calls out instructions to groups of students, though midway through the year most of them don’t need direction. Everyone has a job: some use shovels to turn the compost, some clean tools and buckets, some wash the day’s harvest, and others rake the soil.
A wide variety of edible plants thrive in the organic garden, from kale and rainbow chard to green and red lettuce to an abundance of herbs.
Jorge Sanchez, Chula Vista High School Senior
With so many flourishing greens, it’s surprising to learn that the garden was a patch of mud and dirt a little more than two years ago. At first the dirt couldn’t keep anything alive, and it took a labor of love to turn it into the productive garden it is today. But Mrs. Galleher was not without help: every day her students worked the dirt, learning to turn it into healthy soil.
She also enlisted help from outside organizations to donate supplies and provide science-based lessons in gardening. A $20,000 grant from CHIP, as part of the CDC-funded REACH Chula Vista initiative, got the garden started, and community support soon followed. The City of Chula Vista donated compost bins and recycling bins, Common Vision helped with a fruit tree orchard, and other groups have provided financial and volunteer resources each year.
Jorge remembers an early lesson about soil and the relationship that develops between gardener and earth. “Mrs Galleher began teaching us that dirt is very different from soil, so we turned this place from dirt into soil and we started getting stuff from it. it’s like us giving to the earth and getting something back.”
Mrs. Galleher uses the garden to teach her students about symbiotic relationships and organic pest control. “Everything is organic, which means there are no pesticides here,” she says. Planting companion species together, such as tomato and basil, reduces the need for pesticides. When pests do become a problem, natural solutions are introduced. Ladybugs control aphids, native birds gobble up tomato hornworms, and spiders eat up just about everything else. Students also lend a hand by washing aphids and whiteflies off leaves with water and a drop of peppermint soap and embark on worm gathering expeditions.
It starts with Taste, then goes Deeper
Companion planting helps the garden at Chula Vista High School thrive.
Many students remember the first thing they tasted that they had grown themselves in the garden. For fellow senior Briana Lua, “It was tomatoes, because we had so many of them, and they were so sweet! I’d never eaten a tomato straight from the plant. It was weird for me, but it was so good. And now I’m always cooking with them.
Briana explains that the lessons from the class go far beyond soil and how to tend a garden. “It’s really changed my mindset. Before I wouldn’t be outside in nature, and now [Mrs. Galleher] tells us to take deep breaths outside. Now I always have my window open or I’m hanging outside with my little nephew - we’re always playing outside instead of being inside and trapped.”
In addition to her expanded appreciation of the outdoors, Briana has gained other insights from the class. “I’ve really learned mindfulness and to be more patient, and to know when I can’t change things. It’s not only about gardening, it’s about other stuff. I think it’s really life changing for everyone.”
Briana Lua in the Chula Vista High School Garden
Beyond the Classroom
Both Briana and Jorge say that what they’ve learned in Mrs. Galleher’s class will be something they take with them throughout life.
Briana has already started a sunflower garden at home. “They look so cute. Seeing that I could grow them, I got really inspired to do my own things at home. I even asked another teacher, Ms. Nash, about what I should do to keep my soil healthy. She gave me some fertilizer, and I bought my own shovel and my own pick. My dad’s like, ‘Why are you so in to it now?’ because that wasn’t me. And I told him and he thought it was really great - that I’m not just in the classroom but outside getting clean air during school, so he really liked it.”
Students in the Chula Vista High School garden class tend to a raised planter growing cilantro and cabbage.
Jorge explained that his grandmother has a garden at her home, and, “I bring my notebook from the class every time I go to her house, and I show her what I’ve learned. And in the future, I would like to have a space to make a garden and grow my own food. I’m so interested in it. And I’m going to teach my kids - and whoever I can, that we don’t need sugar - we just don’t.”
This is only first step
Even though the Chula Vista High School garden is flourishing, Mrs. Galleher says this is only the first step. Eventually she wants the garden to be able to supply a year-round fresh, and organic salad bar for the school cafeteria. Ideally, she’ll be able to supply fresh produce for more than just Chula Vista High School. Sweetwater Union HSD already purchases food from schools in the district, including eggs from a chicken farm at Sweetwater High School.
Could Mrs. Galleher’s garden be the next student-run farm to supply the district with fresh food? There are plans in the works to expand the garden, transforming other areas of unproductive dirt into an orchard, a pollinator garden, and (fingers crossed) a chicken farm. If Mrs. Galleher and her students continue to see this level of success, all of Sweetwater Union HSD students might be enjoying a CVHS-grown salad bar.
Chula Vista High School gardening students learn about growing their food.