Marigny Elementary Principal Leslie Martin said she often gets a strange comment from parents of the students at the Mandeville school.

“I hear my kids are eating vegetables,” they tell her.

The students in pre-kindergarten through first grade have been learning to taste what they grow in the school’s garden.

Marigny Garden began as an Eagle Scout project, Martin said. Then a local Kiwanis Club built tables that are used for an outdoor classroom, and the school received a WOW Legacy Garden Project grant through the Northshore Community Foundation. Dedicated teachers, parents and grandparents have helped along the way.

It takes a village to establish a garden this size, Martin said. But Marigny Gardens has really begun to flourish with the help of St. Tammany Master Gardener program volunteers.

Marigny Garden was recently featured at the Louisiana Farm to School program presented by the State Department of Education, USDA and the LSU AgCenter in Baton Rouge. The project at Marigny Elementary demonstrates what William Afton, county agent for the LSU AgCenter in St. Tammany Parish, calls “best practices in a school gardening initiative.”

“They’re the role model,” Afton said. At the October conference, master gardeners who work with the garden gave a presentation in the success stories section of the program.

There are also master gardeners helping with garden projects at Woodlake Elementary, Pontchartrain Elementary and Lee Road Junior High schools.

Afton, a horticulturist, trains the St. Tammany Master Gardeners.

“My goal is to make sure the garden looks good all year long,” he said. “The master gardeners come once a week and help keep the garden up throughout the summer.”

He is involved in the schools at the planning level and as a resource to the volunteers. Afton said the Marigny Garden’s design creates a good learning environment and has made gardening fun.

“The students feel at home and are comfortably in the garden,” he said.

The layout started with an Eagle Scout’s beds, which are now a sensory garden where students can see, smell and taste a variety of herbs and vegetables. Students can also walk under a loofa gourd trellis; grow flowers in different-sized boots; and attract butterflies to the caterpillar and ladybug planters made from recycled tires. There is also a bathtub and tabletop garden.

With the maintenance and development of Marigny Gardens in the master gardeners’ hands, the teachers can focus on integrating the garden with the curriculum. Hands-on activities let the students learn how growing food involves math, science, social studies and the language arts.

Sue McGuire is a garden volunteer who has seen it grow since her grandchildren attended the school. She is delighted with the themes designed for the young students throughout the garden. There is a Be Kind Garden of sugar cane for "being sweet"; a Lettuce Garden for "Let Us Be Kind"; a Carrot Garden for "caring"; and a Sugar Snap Pea Garden for "peas," a food pun on “please.”

A centerpiece is the Gumbo Garden, where tomatoes, peppers, okra, parsley and green onions thrive. These ingredients will be harvested and go into a black kettle pot next week for the school’s annual Gumbo Party.

Students in Karen Constanza’s first-grade class were in the garden recently, touring the Sensory Garden and harvesting vegetables to taste. They gathered kale, bok choy, snap beans and red and green lettuce.

“They will try them first, with no dressing,” Constanza said. After taking turns rotating the fresh-washed vegetables in the spinner, students were encouraged to try a bite. They then have the option of trying the vegetables with dressing, to add flavor.

The students were familiar with the beans, not by taste but from math class. They had gone to the garden to measure the two varieties that had been planted: the Asian long bean and the blue lake.

Martin, the principal, said the garden has been incorporated into the school curriculum. She calls the partnership with the Master Gardener program “a critical piece.”

“It’s beautiful when you have a partner ensuring that the kids have a very integrated learning experience,” she said, that's based on the ongoing design and development of the garden.