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Students learn to live off the land in Ahfachkee’s traditional garden

BIG CYPRESS — Ahfachkee students have realized the fruits, and vegetables, of their labor in the school’s traditional garden and have reaped the benefits in the form of healthy meals.

The school’s large garden, which features many traditional Seminole crops, is tended by students with some help from traditional preservation program instructors.

High school students are in the garden every day, elementary students work there twice a week. On March 10, students harvested some of its bounty.

“It’s so positive and calming,” said Carlise Bermudez. “After all your core classes are done, coming to the garden is the best thing.”

The traditional preservation department starts bringing the students to the garden in pre-K, so by the time they graduate they have the knowledge and experience to have their own gardens.

Allie Billie shows off an assortment of carrots she harvested from the garden. (Photo Beverly Bidney)

“We have to protect the garden so it can last for more generations,” said ninth grader Kassim Stockton.

At the beginning of every school year, after a summer of letting the garden go wild, students dig up the old plants, refresh the rows with more soil and plant new crops.

“Being able to plant something and see it grow is exciting for them,” said Maxine Gilke, traditional preservation agricultural instructor. “They put their time and effort into it and get to see something grow.”

Some of the produce that grows in the garden includes avocado, banana, carrots, celery, cabbage, chayote, coconuts, collards, corn, eggplant, garlic, green beans, lemongrass, limes, onions, mango, mint, okra, papaya, pigeon peas, peppers, sweet potatoes, white potatoes, scallions, sugar cane and tomatoes.

“A lot of plants came from elders who have passed,” said Gilke. “The corn came from a medicine man.”

Ahfachkee traditional preservation agricultural instructor Maxine Gilke shows Allie Billie and other students how to harvest collard greens in the Ahfachkee traditional garden on March 10. (Photo Beverly Bidney)

Traditional plants are a big part of the garden with aloe, coontie, assorted medicine plants, wild hibiscus aka “Seminole candy”, strawberry leaf plant and potatoes found in the roots of elephant ear plants. Some of the plants and herbs, such as lemongrass and strawberry leaf, are often used to make tea.

“I hadn’t had wild hibiscus since I was a kid,” said Jeannette Cypress, Ahfachkee’s traditional preservation program director. “A few years ago we found some growing wild and planted one at school. Now it grows everywhere.”

The wild hibiscus flower doesn’t open wide like the domesticated version, but it holds a drop of sweet nectar on the stem inside the blossom. Students love the “Seminole candy,” and were rewarded with one after they harvested the vegetables.

True to tradition, corn is only found in the boys’ garden. Both genders take care of the larger garden, but only the boys may grow and harvest the corn.
For the last two years, the high school science program has been integrated into the garden through a compost bin.

The students are responsible for feeding it every day with buckets of scraps from the school kitchen. Vegetables, fruit and eggshells are included in the mix.

Together, Carlise Bermudez, left, and Talia Osceola harvest cabbage and a carrot from the Ahfachkee garden. (Photo Beverly Bidney)

“I call them compost angels,” said Horacio Smith, cafeteria manager.

The older kids take the elementary school students to the compost bin and show them how it works.

Tenth graders add the scrap bucket and teach the youngsters how to spin the bin so the oxygen moves around and helps break down the refuse. The bacteria consume everything and turn it into fertilizer and rich soil.

“It’s a good program,” said Bermudez. “We get to be good role models for them and show them if we take care of the garden, it will take care of us.”

Smith uses all the items from the garden in the cafeteria; he makes a lot of soups and other dishes. He is fond of the herbs and sometimes sends students to the herb garden to fetch some fresh ones. Each Friday, the high school students cook the week’s bounty in the culture chickee and enjoy the feast.

Ramona Jimmie trims some errant pieces of the celery she just picked in the Ahfachkee garden. (Photo Beverly Bidney)

“You can tell when food is made from the garden,” Bermudez said. “It is way fresher and you can really taste the difference.”

The students enjoy their time in the garden.

“It means coming together like one big family to plant stuff,” said fifth grader Alice Jimmie.

Second grader Hank Jumper likes using the hoe to build the rows and straighten out the dirt.

“No matter what grows here, it is always green,” said ninth grader Billie Cypress.

“We have to work together and know what is going on,” added ninth grader Ramona Jimmie. “It teaches us how to live and go back to our roots. It’s a good experience.”

Julian Clay Martinez smells a freshly picked scallion in the Ahfachkee garden, but he didn’t really enjoy the pungent aroma of the vegetable. (Photo Beverly Bidney)
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Beverly Bidney
Beverly Bidney has been a reporter and photographer for The Seminole Tribune since 2012. During her career, she has worked at various newspapers around the country including the Muskogee Phoenix in Oklahoma, Miami Herald, Associated Press, USA Today and other publications nationwide. A NAJA award winning journalist, she has covered just about everything over the years and is an advocate for a strong press. Contact her at beverlybidney@semtribe.com.
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