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Confessions of a school gardener

23 Nov

I have a confession. Before I tell you my secret, though, recall with me for a moment all the work we’ve done around salads at the George Watts edible garden over the past couple of years.

First, we planted a Salad Garden. We held “Salad Days” in the garden, where kids plucked fresh lettuce leaves, made dressings and nibbled their creations. Then we did the same thing in classrooms, turning salads into an afternoon snack. We grew radish, carrot and tomato plants, brimming with the perfect salad toppers.

I’ve been pushing salads for so long that I’m worried teachers are annoyed with me. But I keep doing it anyway, because salads are easy. You don’t need ovens or pots to prepare a salad.

That’s why what I’m about to tell you is slightly embarrassing for me: My own daughters hate salad. Here’s a picture of my 5-year-old daughter tasting lettuce that her classroom harvested…

I’m telling you this for two reasons:

1. I want to make it clear that I’m just an ordinary parent trying to help my kids eat better. I don’t have all the answers. If I had all the answers, my daughter wouldn’t be wincing in this photo.

2. Though I don’t have all the answers, I deeply believe that one solution is installing “kitchen gardens” and cooking classes at every public school. Every time I volunteer with a classroom or in the garden, I witness this truth: Kids are way more likely to taste and enjoy vegetables when they grow and prepare the food themselves.

Doing it at school means you benefit from the tipping point of vegetable tasting: Once a leader-kid dares to try something, others fall in line. That’s not such a good thing when you’re talking about cigarettes, but when it comes to tasting a radish, I’m a fan of peer pressure.

Granted, not every kid likes the salad, broccoli or whatever it is a classroom is harvesting and tasting. But plenty of kids do, and some of them live with the sort of food insecurity that makes it impossible for them to eat fresh veggies at home. And I’ve seen plenty of “a-ha” moments, as kids realize — lo and behold — they actually do like a vegetable that they didn’t like when it was served on a cafeteria tray or poured out of a can. In fact, they like it better than they normally would, because a vegetable tastes better when you pull it out of the ground and eat it within minutes. If you’ve done this before, you know what I’m talking about.

For some time now, it has troubled me that this deeply held “truth” of mine didn’t apply to my own children. Until now. Last night, when my family was eating out, something changed.

My 8-year-old daughter ordered the salad bar!

If she ever wins the Nobel Prize, she’ll see a beaming smile on my face that’s only a hair bigger than the one I wore last night.

She tried to be nonchalant about her big move, but because I’ve been more or less obsessed with salad-eating for nearly two years now, I ruined the moment by practically lurching across the table and asking, “What made you want to order the salad?”

“Because we made them in class,” she said. “When we were picking the lettuce, I was kind of worried that I wouldn’t like it. But then when we ate the salad, I realized that I actually do like it.”

I hope you caught that: My own daughter, who has been oblivious to the salad revolution I’ve launched at home and at school, is now willing to eat lettuce, because she and her classmates harvested and made a salad themselves.

As it turns out, she only ate some of the restaurant salad, even though she tried building it a couple of different ways. I asked her what was wrong — thinking maybe she didn’t like the dressing.

She said, “It just doesn’t taste as good as the lettuce from our garden at school.”

On a semi-related note, carrots in the garden are ready for harvest. Students really love discovering what’s growing under all that soil.

Eating healthy in the classroom

4 Nov

This week I have a guest post by Lower Elementary teacher Lauren Vejvoda, who talks about one of the true gifts of an Edible Garden — food that kids can pick and eat:

Some of my students have been checking the lettuce in the Edible Garden daily to measure its progress. They’ve been really excited to see something growing that they know is edible.

Photos by Susie Post Rust

When it came time to pick lettuce, we talked about how to harvest the lettuce leaves. The kids commented that the outer leaves were kind of dirty, while the leaves in the center were very small. So they agreed we should harvest the middle leaves.

The students loved popping cherry tomatoes into their mouths, as we picked them in the garden. Even kids who hadn’t eaten tomatoes before gave them a try — though a few expressions changed to “I’m-not-so-sure-about-this” once they bit down.

Most of my class was very excited to eat the lettuce for a snack, and they were super-thrilled to try different dressings they’d brought in.

Not everyone was a fan, of course. One student mentioned, “You know I don’t eat any vegetables,” so that student didn’t share our snack. A small few students tried the lettuce but did not enjoy it.

All in all the salad snack was a success, though, because the students were honest about their feelings, because almost everyone gave the snack a try, and because all the ingredients for the snack came from the Edible Garden.

We will definitely prepare another snack from the garden and continue discovering how vegetables taste!

P.S. Ms. Vejvoda’s teaching assistant, Ms. Bullock, harvested some lettuce to take home. She found me later to rave about it. It was better tasting and stayed fresh longer than the “in bag” salad she’s bought in the past, plus, she says, she could eat every single bit of it — even the stems were tasty. Spread the word, Ms. Bullock!

Smells like garlic season

3 Nov

My recent garden session with fourth and fifth graders at George Watts Montessori started with a question: “When you buy garlic at the grocery store, where do you think that garlic comes from?”

Just some of last summer's garlic crop

The students had never really thought about it, so they cautiously offered answers. One student said, “It depends on what store you go to,” which is probably true.

“Three out of four of the garlic heads you see in grocery stores are likely from China. That’s our main source for garlic,” I told them. “So, is there anything wrong with that? Maybe it’s perfectly fine that most of our garlic comes from China, or maybe it’s not. What do you think?”

The answers came quickly.

“No, that’s polluting the air!”

“That’s wasting energy, if it has to come all the way from China!”

“Everything comes from China these days.” (I’m not kidding; one of the students actually said that.)

I showed them what I had in the small paper bag I was carrying — 8 heads of garlic from local garden shop Stone Bros. & Byrd that cost about $3 total.

I told them, “We can plant our own garlic right here in our garden. It’s easy to grow. And when it’s ready for picking after a few months, we can harvest and dry it, and it’s ready for using in some of our favorite meals, like pasta and pizza.

“We don’t need to have someone in China do this for us and then put it on a plane and send it all the way over here.”

So that’s what the students did. They started by smoothing out the soil in our freshly turned garden bed. Then they measured and made holes 6 inches apart. They chose the largest and most viable garlic cloves, planted them 2 inches deep — with the pointy side up — and loosely covered them with soil. We covered the bed with straw and marked it with a kid-painted “Garlic” sign.

We should have about 50 garlic heads to harvest in early summer. ($3 investment + several months = 50 garlic heads.)

Last summer, we gave away lots of garlic heads from the garden at our summer farmer’s market at the school. With any luck, we’ll have a big crop again this year.

Straw protects the garlic bed over the winter.

Giving away garlic at the school's summer market

Are you ready?

20 Oct

Only 11 more days until the cooking-eating-gardening-crafts-and-music extravaganza known as …

Expect hands-on cooking lessons for kids, mind-bendingly good (and healthful) tastings, pumpkins for painting, games, crafts and live music! Kids can crank an old-fashioned apple press by hand and see the apples turn into juice before their eyes! Teachers will take to the stage for a performance you don’t want to miss! And the kettle corn and caramel apples will be as good as any at the State Fair!

George Watts Montessori wouldn’t be having this event if it weren’t for the organizations and businesses listed at the bottom of the poster — it’s as simple as that. Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina Foundation gave us a grant to help enhance our grounds and outdoor education. Whole Foods is kicking in cases of apples and pumpkins. Chef Marco Shaw of Piedmont is donating his time and talent. SEEDS is bringing their apple press (operated by DIG kids). Boxcarr is bringing a special menu of items for the day — just for us. And NCCU students are devoting classroom time to coming up with some fun and educational booths for kids, which they’ll also be staffing on the day of the event.

Say THANKS to all these wonderful folks, next time you see them!

Picking tomatoes in October & other amazing feats

15 Oct

Even as I impatiently await the return of truly cold weather — so I can once again wear my favorite black boots — I marvel at what this extended warm weather has done for the school garden.

Every day, students are able to pick ripe tomatoes from the vine and eat them on the spot. I mean, would you just look at this abundance?

Tomatoes in October

Kids that start the year feeling lukewarm (to put it kindly) about tomatoes become more open-minded about this delicious treat they can pick right from the vine.

Another amazing feat of Mother Nature: The basil keeps growing and growing and growing. In my daughter’s Lower El classroom, students recently harvested some basil, took it back to the room and made pesto to mix with noodles as their afternoon snack.

Basil, as far as the eye can see

You, too, can enjoy pesto made with basil from the Edible Garden! I’ll be making pesto using the fresh basil and summer-harvested garlic grown by students in our Edible Garden — and selling it by the jar.

If you’d like to have your own jar of delectable Edible Garden Pesto, simply post a comment here!

I’ll sell them for as long as supplies last. All funds go toward the purchase of mulch to protect the school garden through winter. I’d ask you to give what you think is fair for this mini-fundraiser, perhaps $5-$10. Thanks for your ongoing support!

Fresh basil from the garden becomes ...

Pesto!

My, how you’ve grown

1 Oct

Fourth and fifth grade students are introduced to the edible garden with a lesson called “Garden Changes Over Time.”

It goes something like this: Measure the length and width of the garden. Use the measurements to create a grid over the garden map that divides the entire space into one-meter squares. (And voila — math.) Assign each student a square. Tell students that, throughout the year, they’ll observe changes in their small plots. They should draw and write about those changes in their journals.

Simple, right? Here’s what it looks like in action:

 

When I saw these students the other day, I couldn’t resist taking a few photos. You can’t believe how peaceful the scene was. No one was talking or peeking at someone else’s work or seeming distracted by the gorgeous weather. Everyone was peering down at their own plants and at their journals, trying to faithfully capture their plots in watercolor, while soaking up a little morning sun.

Radish with your chips?

9 Jun

Our friends down the road at EK Powe hosted a Radish Day last week, which turned out really well by all accounts.

For the entire school day, the fearless Jen Minnelli, chair of the PTA’s Slow Food committee, stationed herself at a “Taste Table” with tortilla chips, radish salsa and vegetable dip. And as kids and parents passed by, they stopped to enjoy the healthy snack. Hopefully, as they nibbled, students remembered the radishes, carrots, lettuce and more they’ve been growing in their beautiful school garden.

This makes me dream about a day when kids can harvest and make daily snacks straight from their own gardens. (Get the radish salsa recipe here.)

Thanks goes to Whole Foods, who partnered with EK Powe for the event! And to Jen for her all her work.

Jen and her son at Powe's garden - photo courtesy of The Durham News