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Parents, students revitalize C.A. Frost garden

Elementary school garden back in bloom

Grand Rapids — A once weed-riddled garden, nestled behind C.A. Frost Environmental Science Academy on Laughlin Drive, has been revitalized and transformed into a lush, bright, verdant space for students and teachers.

“It really is a magical place,” said Principal Karla Finn, who credits the transformation to the work of a small group of parents and kids. 

That group includes Lauren and Kevin Charbonneau and their kids, 10-year-old Penelope and 8-year-old Sly, along with Aaron Garza and his children, 7-year-old Witten and 5-year-old Rowan. The volunteers have spent hundreds of summer hours breathing new life into the garden, continuing work that started in 2022.

Finn said the garden has been a staple of C.A. Frost for longer than she can remember. It was once dutifully maintained, too, but the COVID-19 pandemic led to a period of neglect.

Now, as Garza gives a brief tour of the tomatoes, budding Brussels sprouts, zinnias, marigolds, green beans and more, it’s hard to imagine the garden ever wanting for attention.

Garza and the other parent-volunteers have even plotted out an outdoor learning space in the rear of the garden, complete with benches and turf. The hope is that the area will be utilized by teachers to help students learn about gardening and farm-to-table food practices, while seeing pollinators in action.

It’s already become a highly coveted space, according to Finn, who said a signup sheet will have to be implemented to make sure every class gets a turn.

Kevin Charbonneau examines sunflowers drying out in the greenhouse at C.A. Frost with his kids, Penelope and Sly
Kevin Charbonneau examines sunflowers drying out in the greenhouse at C.A. Frost with his kids, Penelope and Sly

Lending a Hand

The members of the small volunteer group have spent more than 200 hours on-site, getting the garden back in shape, starting with clearing and mulching small portions.

Garza’s business, Garza Potting Shed, donated tomatoes, native plants and more to the garden. Garza said he and the other parents hope to implement a plan for the space, to help guide teachers with respect to maintenance and growing schedules.

He said he hopes C.A. Frost students will be able to take advantage of what the garden has to offer, learning more about where food comes from along the way.

“They can take ownership of it,” he said. “That’s kind of the idea of this coming school year, is to have a whole plan for them.”

Garza brings some professional knowledge of landscaping and gardening to the group, but the Charbonneaus have some homegrown expertise as well. 

“My mom was a gardener, and I grew up kind of like my kids are growing up: run outside, grab a bowl of tomatoes and green beans for dinner, and you come back with a full belly and barely anything for dinner,” Kevin Charbonneau said. “And I’m fine with that, because they’re eating their vegetables, we know where they’re grown, I know we haven’t used any pesticides or herbicides, it’s all natural. It’s just kind of keeping up with the way I learned, and hopefully they can learn some and pass it on.”

The kids have found the work rewarding, too. 

Penelope’s favorite part? Tomatoes. For Sly, it’s green beans. Both prefer eating them to planting them, they said.

Aaron Garza gestures to the work he and other parents have done to rejuvenate the garden and get it in shape for the school year
Aaron Garza gestures to the work he and other parents have done to rejuvenate the garden and get it in shape for the school year

Planning for the Future 

While Garza and the Charbonneaus plan to keep helping out, the ultimate goal is to generate interest and investment in the garden among other parents and students.

It really is a magical place.’

— Principal Karla Finn

“We want them to eat the tomatoes, but we also want them to understand what it takes to close the garden down for the winter and open it up for the spring,” Lauren Charbonneau said. 

“And hopefully urge their parents to be part of it as well,” Finn added.

Finn emphasized that what’s grown in the garden will go back into the community, at no cost.

“They call it the sharing garden,” Finn said. “The community just can come … and grab whatever appeals to them.”

Parents who volunteer at the garden get “first dibs,” Lauran said, and what’s left goes to the school’s bounty table.

Read more from Grand Rapids: 
Fifty ‘magical’ years
Have empathy, want change: capstones they care about

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Riley Kelley
Riley Kelley
Riley Kelley is a reporter covering Cedar Springs, Grand Rapids, East Grand Rapids and Sparta school districts. An award-winning journalist, Riley spent eight years with the Ludington Daily News, reporting, copy editing, paginating and acting as editor for its weekly entertainment section. He also contributed to LDN’s sister publications, Oceana’s Herald-Journal and the White Lake Beacon. His reporting on issues in education and government has earned accolades from the Michigan Press Association and Michigan Associated Press Media Editors. Riley’s early work in journalism included a stint as an on-air news reporter for WMOM Radio, and work on the editorial staff of various student publications. Riley is a graduate of Grand Valley State University. He originally hails from western Washington.


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