Photo by Amani Sodiq.

There’s a difference between native Texas milkweed and tropical milkweed. The former is where the monarchs that travel through our state lay their eggs. The latter breaks down the butterflies’ immune system, often killing them.

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It’s the difference the average person doesn’t know when they walk into their Home Depot looking to create a butterfly garden.

Plant native milkweed.

That’s Kim Aman’s slogan.

She might actually have more than one slogan. Most of them probably have something to with farming.

She’s Farmer Kim for a reason.

Aman helped launch Moss Haven Farms 13 years ago. The patch of grass has become 23 raised beds, a farm field and the home to chickens that produce eggs worthy of ‘Best Egg’ at the State Fair of Texas on Harry S. Moss’ old ranch land. Now, almost every student at Moss Haven Elementary spends at least a day working with their hands.

School gardening isn’t a new concept. Programs up and down the West Coast, East Coast and Rocky Mountain states have long incorporated farming into their curriculum.

“They’ve been doing this for 30 years. We’re behind the curve,” Aman says. “We weren’t necessarily the first people doing it in Dallas, but we’re the first people that brought it to people’s attention that this was important and valuable.”

In Mansfield, Ohio, a town where the population has been about 50,000 for the last 50 years, there’s land that’s been in Aman’s family for seven generations. A Rust Belt All-American farm harvesting corn and herding cattle. Her grandfather maintained a large garden for food and they’d store the excess produce for the winter months.

“It just taught me the value of the bite of a bright red tomato,” she says.

After living in Cleveland suburb Fairview Park as a child, her family moved to Richardson, Texas, back in the ‘70s when Dallas really started growing. But every summer, Aman would return to the family farm.

“We’d go to amusement parks, and museums and blah blah blah, but get me on the tractor on the farm and that was the best,” Aman says. “The woods whisper my name, and it sounds corny but you feel that your ancestors were there.”

The farming gene skipped a generation with her mom, whose interest in harvesting only went as far as an herb garden.

Aman went to the Pacific Northwest for a teaching degree and came back to Texas. As a special education teacher at Moss Haven Elementary School, where she taught for 22 years, she would take students outdoors and conduct class there.

“I noticed really improved behavior and learning and focus,” she says “So, I literally taught outside, and they could hardly ever find me.”

A few parents developed an interest in starting a garden at the school.

“And my principal said ‘Oh, you need to go talk to Kim. She’s never inside,’” Aman says.

The Moss Haven PTA provided initial funds to start the farm. A team of parents and Aman worked on getting RISD to approve plans. Somewhere in the planning process, somebody knew someone at the American Heart Association, which has a Teaching Garden Program, and they received grant money.

“And they asked us to be the first teaching garden in the state,” Aman says. “And we’re like, ‘Yes, please.’”

The farm officially opened in 2012. News outlets came to cover the opening. The first year, they had 24 children signed up for the after-school program. The second year 87 students and the third year 220 students. There was some apprehension from the older grades.

“They were like ‘We need our screens and our paper and pencil and all these things,’” she says.

But then when students who had experienced Moss Haven Farm in the early years got to higher grades and would start course work about topics like erosion, they already understood concepts and experienced real-life examples.

Science. Social studies. Health. Exercise. Social-emotional learning. Math.

“There’s so many things you can learn in one garden lesson that can tie everything together,” Aman says. “It’s really great for kids to get outside and connect with rollie pollies and earth worms and an occasional garter snake and chickens.”

A March 2023 study, The School Gardening and Health and Well-Being of School-Aged Children: A Realist Synthesis, showed a shift to nutrient-dense eating, increased physical activity and overall improvement in health in students who participate in programs like Moss Haven Farms. According to a 2017 Columbia University study, students with access to a garden increased vegetable and fruit intake up to three times as much during lunch. It provides more than triple the amount of nutritional education that students receive yearly and hands-on learning experience.

But programs need a lot of hands to be successful. Aman says the average lifetime is two years. The Eden Project, currently being conducted at the University of Texas, has mined data that shows success is directly connected to administrative support. You also need parental support.

“Moss Haven moms are a force of nature. They’re so helpful. They were so instrumental in starting that with their passion and their energy and their connections to other people,” Aman says.

Tiffany Walker, the PTA president in 2011, helped cofound the Moss Haven Farm.

Once there’s parental and administrative support, then there’s the issue of teaching people how to actually garden. Most people are disconnected from the food system.

“When you’re with a group of teachers, and you say, ‘How many of you have a garden?’ Maybe two or three raise their hand … But then you’ll say, ‘Well, how many of your parents?” Then maybe like six hands would go up. Well, ‘How many of your grandparents? Thirty hands go up,’” Aman says.

Then, there’s the issue of connecting people back to nature and showing teachers how to incorporate the outdoors in low-lift ways.

“Even if you’re doing language arts and it’s reading a book, go sit outside,” she says. “Some schools don’t even have windows for them to look out. It can heal a lot of things.”

Then there’s the issue of water. And most teachers don’t have time to water gardens between developing curricula and managing their classrooms. The team at Moss Haven was once quoted $18,000 to install automated irrigation.

That’s why you have to have more hands.

“When I was in school, I was a good note passer, and that’s all social media is passing notes around. So I did really well at that,” Aman says.

They won a social media contest to go the White House Easter Egg Roll where they got connected to other organizations and increased participation in the program.

“And then after a while, it was like this is so great for our kids. But what about the other kids in our city and our district and our community? And how can we help them?” she says.

She left the classroom and created a nonprofit. Grow Garden Grow, founded in 2020, focuses on developing programs in schools where there’s not enough support naturally or located in food deserts. Becoming a nonprofit was the easiest way to access grants and donations without getting caught in school district red tape, mitigating vendor contracts and easier access to funds. Plus, people like Jack Johnson could donate. He actually did.

Grow Garden Grow is currently in four different school districts and works with about 7,000 children a month. Students who have experienced the program have started gardening experiences for other students. 100 Women of Lake Highlands donated thousands of dollars to gardening projects.

Aman spends less time planting these days. She writes grants, goes to meetings and does walk-throughs to see how lessons are going. Aman still very much involved in Moss Haven.

“I thought teaching was my dream job. I felt like I was born to be a teacher … That was my jam,” she says. “People say corny things like ‘It just all falls into place.’ But it did, with a lot of work and sweat, and, you know, Texas heat. But the stars align and the rows were straight.”

She’s says got nine more years in her. She’ll call it quits when she’s 70.

“I’ll put myself out to pasture then,” she says.

After all, she’s Farmer Kim.