A new concept of outdoor education is currently “growing up” in Douglas Campus in Sulphur Springs. With the leadership of Mr. Tim Thomas, science teacher in the campus and 4-H leader, Hopkins County Master Gardener’s volunteers and Hopkins County 4-H, the idea of outdoor education has become a reality. “My life long desire of incorporating physical activity, science projects and gardening has become a reality- Thomas said. According to Mr. Thomas, the outdoor classroom was planned to incorporate several science projects to give the students in Douglas Campus an opportunity to become engaged in basic agriculture, biology and physical activity. The project, funded by the SSISD foundation and enhanced by grants of Hopkins-Rains Farm Bureau, Texas A&M AgriLife Extension in Hopkins County and University of Texas in Tyler is trying to bridge the gap between traditional classroom education and open walls teaching approaches.
Dr. Mario Villarino, County Extension Agent for Agriculture and Natural Resources has been involved since the planning part of the project. According to Villarino, several components will be included in the outdoor classroom. The idea started with Mr. Thomas concept of the outdoor classroom- Villarino added, then we planned activities and structures that allow us to make them a reality. A key component was the creation of a 4-H club in Douglas school to provide a foundation to youth involvement outside traditional teaching schedule. More than 70 youth attendants met to create the club, few weeks ago, selected a club name, elect officers and set up a working meeting.
The Hopkins County Master Gardeners have participated in several session during planting and teaching principles of horticulture and of keyhole gardening. According to Bill Sevier, Oklahoma Master Gardener, “ the keyhole garden technique was first made popular in sub-Saharan Africa, where it was recognized to be a method of growing green vegetables with limited water supply. In the U.S., it has been popularized by environmental scientist Deb Tolman, Ph.D.
The basic idea for the structure is simple. Usually it is a circular raised-bed garden 3-4 feet tall and about 6 feet across, with a wedge removed for access. From above, it looks like a keyhole or a pie with a skinny slice removed. In the center of the bed is an upright circular tube structure 3-4 feet tall and 1 foot in diameter, usually made of wire mesh. The height of the bed, the tube and the materials used to construct it have many variations. The outer wall is usually made of stone, wood, plastic or metal. Often, cardboard is used inside the bed on the sides to prevent leakage and as fill. The bed, all but the center wire tube, may be filled with layers of a variety of organic material such as cardboard, paper, manure, leaves, straw and old potting soil. Thin layers of garden soil are often added between these layers. All of the organics should be watered as added. The top 5-6 inches can be compost, good garden soil or potting soil. This will be used for planting. The top of the bed should slope from the center tube downward to the outside wall to promote drainage. The center tube, which has been made accessible by the wedged slot in the bed, is used to add alternating layers of green (nitrogen) and brown (carbon) garden wastes. This also includes all kitchen scraps except dairy, fats and meats. The central composting tube is also where water is added to the garden. With irrigation of the tube, the composting process of the organics goes fast, and water and nutrients (compost tea) leak into the surrounding bed. This conserves water and encourages the plants to put down deep roots.
The keyhole garden will allow you to grow many types of vegetables, especially the green leafy ones, using less water and fertilizer in a smaller space. It is versatile and accessible for the physically limited. With little effort, a frame may be constructed on which to place a cooling shade cloth in summer. The same frame can be covered with plastic sheeting as winter approaches, making a cold frame for extending your vegetables’ growing seasons”. The Douglas outdoor classroom has currently 3 keyhole gardens, fifty tomato plants growing in containers, 3 traditional raised beds and a rainwater harvesting unit. Plans are to include a greenhouse, Martin house, a screeching owl box and vermiculture units. The building of the different components of the outdoor classroom will be conducting during club meetings to enhanced curriculum during the session. We have got great response from the members of Douglas, and we are very excited of having this opportunity in our school, Thomas added.