Since 2016, the Heritage Citrus Grove and Gardens project in Rialto, California, has planted over five hundred citrus fruit trees across nineteen elementary schools in Rialto Unified School District (RUSD). As the project’s name suggests, growing and harvesting citrus was a significant part of Rialto’s and much of San Bernardino County’s history. The site of the first navel orange trees ever planted in the United States can still be visited in the nearby city of Riverside, and up until the 1930s, California was the leading producer of citrus in the country thanks to its mild Mediterranean climate. In the latter half of the 20th century, that title shifted to Florida as California’s population boomed and residential developments and modern industries replaced historic citrus groves. Yet Southern California’s citrus-conducive climate remains, and over the past six years, Brian Montez, RUSD’s Grounds Maintenance Supervisor, has made it his mission to honor that heritage by establishing educational citrus groves for Rialto’s children to tend and enjoy for generations to come.
“At the beginning of 2015, the state of California was telling us we had to reduce our water consumption by 24%. Mr. Solomon Barber’s 5th-grade class at Henry Elementary School, our VAPA (Visual and Performing Arts) magnet school, did a water conservation presentation,” recalls Montez. “Students made displays, posters, and models. All the suggestions they came up with were more than possible, but with limited funding, most were not within the district's capabilities. In the Grounds Department, I started by cutting back irrigation times and days to the least possible without damaging the landscaping. The Maintenance Department did its part to conserve as much water as possible with repairs and preventative maintenance to existing facilities, but what did we do for the students?”
Surprisingly, at the time, Montez was a self-described “Grim Reaper of Gardens.” He was skeptical about starting gardens on school property and regrettably shares an instance where he declined to help Susan Dix, a teacher at Kelley Elementary, start her garden because he was sure the project would fail. He declined grants to replace turf with decomposed granite and drought-tolerant garden plants, preferring the schools’ grassy spaces. He reluctantly agreed to help the student participants in a science project to maximize the yield of Rialto Community Garden. “I met Juanita Chan (Science Lead for RUSD), who was heading up the function,” says Montez. “Kicking and screaming all the way, I did a drip irrigation model presentation for the students at their second meeting, where they presented their designs and models of gardens they had made.”
However, Montez’s grim outlook on gardens began to change when he accepted a chance to attend the Green California Schools and Community Colleges Summit in late 2015. “I thought it would be an interesting event,” Montez explains. “Maybe I would find a way to landscape sustainably without all the decomposed granite and desert plants. While at the summit, I had the opportunity to listen to several speakers, but one made the biggest impression on me. Her name was Sharon Gamson Danks, and she made me think about things like green spaces and gardens in a whole different light.” Danks is the author of Asphalt to Ecosystems: Design Ideas for Schoolyard Transformation. Her presentation encouraged Montez to consider a landscaping feature he hadn’t considered before — school orchards. The idea captivated him, and with the historical precedence of thriving citrus groves in the area, he set out to get as much funding for turf removal and the installation of schoolyard citrus groves as he could. Montez eventually secured fifteen grants from four different water companies. “I had been transformed from the “Grim Reaper of Gardens” to someone I did not know. The district's 125th anniversary was coming up, and I thought this would be a good way to show the students that we were listening to them.”
The Heritage Citrus Grove Project’s first orange tree was planted at Garcia Elementary on December 6, 2016. “Over the course of 12 months, we planted 16 groves of trees, and the last tree was planted on December 20, 2017, at Kordyak Elementary,” says Montez. Since 2017, the project has installed groves at three additional schools that didn’t qualify for the original funding and planted more than fifty stone fruit trees across the sites donated by the Incredible Edible Community Garden program. Maybe most surprising of all is that Montez included ten 4'x8' raised garden beds alongside each grove he installed, including one for Ms. Susan Dix at Kelley Elementary. He had completely transformed into a garden education advocate.
Each year since 2017, the bounty of fruit and garden produce is harvested by RUSD students, sold back to the district’s nutrition services to be served in school lunches, donated to Rialto’s Grace Vargas Senior Center, where it’s all claimed within hours, and frequently sent home with students and school staff.
“The district decided to create K through 5th-grade curriculums to go with my grant projects using the Next Generation Science Standards,” Montez shares. “The goal was to get the students out of the classroom and into the garden. The garden will be their new classroom, a place for students to learn about agriculture, local history, state history, math, science, English, etc. The groves are used to teach entrepreneurship when growing a product and selling it to make money. Environmental studies are also a key part of the project: Learning to be good stewards of our environment, planting trees, using water wisely, and conserving water.”
Though the Heritage Citrus Grove and Gardens project’s original scope is complete, Montez’s love of school gardens continues. He has since assisted with installing two middle school garden projects, one high school garden project, and other outdoor classrooms and meditation gardens throughout the district. Montez is soon set to retire from RUSD, but his staff will continue to care for the gardens, and the legacy of the Heritage Citrus and Gardens Project seems poised to endure for many years to come.