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Davis Bilingual Magnet School

Davis Bilingual Magnet School in Tucson, Arizona, the sustainability winner in the 2016 Carton 2 Garden contest, is a vibrant educational community that provides its students with a bilingual Spanish immersion curriculum emphasizing social justice and celebrating diversity. It also boasts a strong school garden program, replete with multiple growing beds, compost bins, a chicken coop, and several rainwater harvesting systems. But gardening in a desert climate presents young gardeners with unique challenges.

Sunshine is important in any garden. But one of the difficulties of gardening in the hot Arizona climate can be too much sunshine! Young seedlings need protection from its intense rays as they toughen up and prepare for life in the open garden. The need for a sun shelter was the inspiration for students at Davis Bilingual to put their cafeteria milk cartons to good use by recycling them as the building blocks for a shade-providing greenhouse.

The process began with the collection and cleaning of almost 700 cartons from the school cafeteria. This kind of recycling was already familiar to the students, who separate out and collect food scraps, paper, plastic, cans, and bottles for composting and recycling, and it allowed the entire student body to play a part in the project, even those not directly participating in the greenhouse construction. As the stock of cartons grew, students throughout the school were engaged in discussions about the importance of reducing, reusing, and recycling waste and brainstorming ways to reuse their cartons for the contest. “We allowed students to use their imaginations and their creativity to explore the ways that recycled materials can be used to create art,” says Sophia Jones, university intern at the school and team leader for the contest. “After one student cut one of the milk cartons into a long skinny strip, we began playing around with the idea of braiding the pieces to create shade in the garden.”

In keeping with the focus on recycling, the framework of the greenhouse was fashioned from used PVC piping, making a structure large enough for children to enter into and explore. Next, the students cut the collected cartons into long pieces that were zip-tied together. After creating these long pieces, they wove them together and zip-tied them to the greenhouse framework.

Since its construction, the greenhouse has been used as a tool to help students gain a better understanding of the desert environment. For example, using recycled cartons as pots, one group of students filled two pots apiece with soil and planted seeds in them. One pot was placed inside the greenhouse and one was set outside in the sun and the results monitored. The young gardeners got a clear, visual understanding of how quickly the hot sun dried out the soil in the pots and the growing challenges this presented.

The project’s benefits were felt beyond the garden itself. Students practiced math skills as they collected and organized cartons from the cafeteria. It also led to conversations school-wide about the importance of making an effort to reduce the volume of trash going to the landfill through recycling and reuse. Says Jones, “One of the biggest benefits of the greenhouse is that it is a beautiful display of how trash can be reused to become a functional piece of artwork.”