News // August 06, 2014

Children and Community Grow Together at Julian Union School District's Whimsical School Garden

It’s lunchtime at Julian Elementary and the students are all abuzz as they enjoy a healthy farm-to-school meal of grilled chicken sandwiches, herb roasted potatoes and fresh fruit outside on a crisp, sunny day. The butterflies and bees fly by as everyone enjoys the fresh air.  Just past the picnic tables, through a rustic gate, lies the whimsical school garden that is the cultural and educational centerpiece of campus. Students, teachers, parents and community members come to the garden year round to learn, socialize, give back, and enjoy the outdoors.

A shining example of the Julian community’s support of the school garden was the installation of art piece gate created by James Hubbell, a world-renown artist who lives in Julian.

“One of our objectives for the garden is to grow a sense of place, with little touches everywhere that are distinctly Julian,” said School Garden Coordinator, Tricia Elisara.  “It was a dream come true when one of our community members encouraged Hubbell to come see the garden.  He walked around, got inspired, and said ‘I want a piece out here’.   The children in our after school photography program went to his studio and took pictures of him bending the metal and painting the piece. We had a ribbon cutting for the finished  work.  Our garden ambassadors came proudly wearing their identifying shirts, parents brought food, the sixth graders had written haikus about the gate so they did a poetry reading, and then the community joined, including librarians and local news reporters.  It truly was a community affair.”

Nestled on the outskirts of the small rural mountain community of Julian, California, the Julian Union School District is the hub and center of the community. The district schools play an integral part in the lives of families, neighboring businesses and the surrounding community. The quaint, rustic town of Julian is located sixty miles northeast of San Diego and is a popular tourist retreat throughout the year. Known as "the apple country", the old-fashioned, picturesque town's privacy and close knit community atmosphere is highly valued by the local townspeople, many of whose families have lived in the area for several generations.

Julian Elementary School transformed a slab of asphalt located in a once neglected side yard of campus into the now flourishing Julian Elementary Character Garden. The garden’s unique features – a 3,000 gallon rain water catchment cistern, a community table crafted by local woodcarver Don Madison from cedar wood burned in a recent wildfire, and an outdoor kitchen for preparing and sampling the produce of the month – encourage hands-on learning about nutrition, conservation, citizenship, storytelling, and of course, gardening.  These skills speak to the rural town’s history and economic vitality.

“We were able to procure the water catchment system through a grant sponsored by the County of San Diego Board of Supervisors,” said Julian Union School District Superintendent, Kevin Ogden. “Last summer, we were able to water the garden completely with rain water collected and stored in the system. It’s a huge cost savings to the school to not have to pay extra for the garden’s water system, and it supports water conservation during California’s severe drought.”

“A week ago, before this rain storm, the cistern was empty,” added Elisara. “After the weekend storm, we caught 2,600 gallons. The kids get that – we caught it, it’s free, and we get to use it every time we turn the system on.”

So what are the students growing in their garden?

More than food, their garden is a place for personal growth and development.

“Our mission statement says that we grow eight things out here, and one of them is food,” said Elisara. “We also talk about character, beauty, citizenship, stories, and community.”

One opportunity for character-building is the garden’s Ambassador Program, which trains selected fifth and sixth graders to give informational garden tours to community members and their peers.  The ambassadors learn public speaking skills and are proud of their important role in promoting the garden.

“It was kind of like getting a job to be a Garden Ambassador,” said Ambassador Cassidy Reed. ”They asked you some questions and you had to answer them. If you were lucky, you got to become a Garden Ambassador. You also had to do a practice tour to get an Ambassador t-shirt.”

The local community plays a vital role in the development and success of the school garden.  The open campus allows neighbors to use the garden for social events, garden tours and spending time outdoors. Parents and seniors step forward to take the lead in supporting gardening efforts and maintaining the garden during summer vacation.

Julian Union School District’s commitment to student health, and the support of the community in these efforts, goes far beyond the school garden program.  Julian Pathways Center for Family, Schools and Community Partnerships, located on the middle school campus, is a collaborative of school staff, families, public and private agencies, local businesses and community members to meet the needs of students and families.  Pathway’s goal is to ensure that each child in the Julian Union School District receives the physical, emotional and intellectual support he or she needs to learn well at school, at home and in the community.

“We have a fairly involved referral process that teachers or administrators use to refer students or families for support,” said Pathways Executive Director, Susi Jones. “At the beginning of every school year, the teacher of every classroom comes in and we discuss each and every student K-8 in our school. We find their strengths and needs in four different categories – academics, social/emotional, family, and health. If a child excels in sports, we may link him to a sports program or provide a uniform - whatever he needs to be able to engage in that sport.  It’s a really thorough program so no kids slip through the cracks.”

Students also receive daily health and wellness support through the Farm to School Lunch Program, led by Jeremy Manley, Executive Chef at the nearby Jeremy’s on the Hill.  Manley went to school in Julian, and after studying at Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts in San Francisco and working in San Diego, he returned to Julian and opened his family restaurant.  Shortly thereafter, Elisara and Jones were looking to bring more local ingredients to the school lunch program, so they approached Manley asking if he would cook a meal for the students once a week.  Wanting to give back to his alma mater and community in an even bigger way, Manley now prepares food for the district’s farm-to-school program five days a week.

“We’re really committed to improving the quality of the school’s nutrition program and supporting students’ development,” said Manley.  “We have been seeking grant funding to give young adults opportunities to get paid job experience washing reusable trays and helping in the kitchen.  We are helping them build skills for the future, learn the value of hard work, and reduce the use of disposable plastics.”

Julian Union School District was recognized by the County of San Diego Board of Supervisors as an official Live Well San Diego partner on January 28, 2014 for its efforts to support the health, safety and well-being of its students and the surrounding community.

To learn more school garden tips and to schedule a tour of the Julian Elementary Character Garden, visit

From left to right: Cassidy Reed (5th grade Garden Ambassador), Tricia Elisara (School Garden Coordinator), Perla Lares (5th grade Garden Ambassador)
True Dawson, 3rd grader at Julian Elementary School, works at the compost bin
James Hubbell art piece gate
Jeremy Manley, Executive Chef at Jeremy's on the Hill