Children sing, laugh, get dirty and sweaty. They even gobble snacks.
But for garden instructor Maxine Gilke and the school’s 148 students, the 0.25-acre backyard patch that blooms year-round with veggies, fruits and herbs is an outdoor learning laboratory.
Established by several Big Cypress elders including Agnes Cypress and Thomas Billie, the garden had been an elective class tended by Gilke and students for about nine years. This school year, it is mandatory for high school students and an official part of the cultural curriculum across all grades, said Jeannette Cypress, director of Traditional Preservation.
“First we say the words,” Gilke said bolstering the students’ native Mikasuki language.
Esh-pah-sha-ke for rake. Cha-pa-le for hoe. And honogut for green to describe the vibrant color that saturates the living scene. Work in the garden begins after children recite the Seminole Pledge and sing a welcome song, both in Mikasuki.
According to definition via the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agriculture Sciences’ extension program, the sprawling space is deemed a community garden because the work and yield is shared by community members. But by its very roots, the Ahfachkee garden is Tribal tradition, culture, history and necessary for self-sustenance.
Cultural curriculum specialist Mary Jene Koenes said early Florida Seminoles typically planted gardens 1 or more miles away from encampments that came under frequent Army attacks throughout the Seminole Wars.
Families could abandon camps suddenly without losing their source of nourishment.
“The gardens were always there to sustain them,” Koenes said. “Nowadays, too, a child who learns to grow food will survive.”
Gilke said farming is in her blood. Her grandmother and father were crop laborers who endured back-breaking labor but taught her growing techniques and plant uses similar to those used for Tribal medicine.
Gilke worked nearly two decades for U.S. Sugar before taking a job at the Last Chance Ranch where she trained incarcerated juveniles how to grow and cook their own food.
“We taught them how to live off the land,” Gilke said.
The work is hard, said Ahfachkee 10th-grader Uriah Waggerby as he gathered wood to be burned for ash to enrich the garden soil. Gilke said Uriah is one of the more devoted student gardeners who provides much of the labor, including tilling and harvesting.
Uriah said gardening is his favorite time of day.
“It’s something to do every day and somewhere to be that is beautiful to see. The only bad day is a rainy day – but that’s good for the plants,” Uriah said.
A Sept. 12 tour boasted newly planted rows of carrots, collard greens, hot peppers and tomatoes. Already rooting were squash, sunflowers and onions, while snap peas and avocados were short weeks from ripe and ready to eat.
The garden is like gumbo: “A little bit of everything,” Gilke said.
And it’s personal from Charlie Frye’s 3-year-old guava tree to an aloe patch planted by Graysun Billie in memory of a beloved relative. Every row is tagged with the names of the plant and the children who toiled to get the job done.
A salsa section cultivates ingredients that eventually get chopped and diced for an unofficial peer review that lauds the best salsa maker at the school. Last year, Damien Fish took the distinction.
“Some like it hot, some like it not hot,” Damien said.
Some fruits and vegetable never make it out of the garden, Gilke said. On a recent garden tour, black-eyed peas were plucked and devoured on the spot.
Lemon grass and aloe flourish year-round. Basil, thyme, mint and other herbs are bountiful and picked for daily use to flavor meats, vegetables and tea. Cotton grows from pretty pink petals into fuzzy bolls. Carrots are wildly anticipated.
“We love carrots,” said a group of sixth-graders all at once. And they love carrot juice as much as sugar cane – of which they will have their fill by the end of the school year.
Every year brings unexpected blessings, Gilke said. Last year, students boasted a 3-pound apricot, a reoccurrence of a pumpkin vine that blooms fruit atop a chickee roof, and a new scattered batch of volunteer edibles that include a papaya tree and asparagus.
Sometimes class wraps up in the cafeteria kitchen.
Last year kids helped make pumpkin bread and potato fries. Recently, kids picked avocado for homemade guacamole that was served at the school salad bar.
First-grader Layne Andrews said the best part of planting the garden is watching it grow.
“You get flowers or food and sometimes you get both,” Layne said. Like the native cranberry hibiscus with petals that color tea and leaves that taste like sweet lettuce.
Classmate Savannah Cypress has a bittersweet opinion about the Ahfachkee garden.
“It’s good to grow food so we can grow up and be strong, but it’s too bad we can’t grow macaroni,” she said.