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5 ways edible gardens make kids smarter and healthier

1 Feb

I just created a presentation about the evolution of our school garden at George Watts Montessori. (I can’t wait to tell you why I was doing that, but that will have to wait for another post.)

To show what we’ve accomplished, I delved into the 5 biggest ways the garden has contributed to the students’ health and academics:

1. Kids are tasting more vegetables and fruits — and learning how to cook them. Tasting what’s growing in the garden is so essential, but it’s also a challenge to incorporate into the school day.

At schools like Martin Luther King, Jr. Middle School in Berkeley, Calif., they have kitchen and garden staff who work together in figuring out what’s ready to harvest and cook with children — and then do it during set-aside blocks of time. If you’re not lucky enough to have that arrangement, you have to fit in tastings somehow.

At our school, the tastings have happened as a school-wide “celebration” — like Harvest Feast or Green Smoothie Day — and also as an individual classroom activity. This year, for example, classrooms gathered lettuce to make salads for a mid-afternoon snack and harvested broccoli for a recipe a teacher brought in. Other classrooms nibble from the plants as they pass through the garden on their way to recess.

What can you make with spinach and strawberries (both grown in our garden)? Green smoothies!

This spring, we’ll be trying something new. More about that in a future post…

2. Kids move more. Outside in the garden, kids can stretch, soak up some sunshine vitamins, and have a sensorial experience, thanks to all the smells and textures in the garden.

But the biggest boon to students’ health? The .25-mile walking path that we installed as part of the garden expansion.

Many classes run the track before starting recess. It’s one way for teachers — and not just the P.E. coach — to help kids reach the daily recommended levels of physical activity, 60 minutes. A growing body of research shows the connection between physical activity and academic performance (not to mention the health benefits of exercise).

So anytime a teacher encourages a run around the track, she’s helping kids get smarter.

A class does a lap before recess begins.

3. It’s a learning lab. I’ve told you before about the garden-based curriculum we’re using at George Watts Montessori. But teachers don’t always need customized lessons to encourage learning outside. Journaling, measuring, making real-world observations, conducting experiments, gathering specimens — it’s all possible in a garden.

Students can witness what happens when they don’t water young seeds enough, or how slowly their compost heap decomposes. It’s like this Chinese proverb puts it: “Tell me and I’ll forget. Show me and I may remember. Involve me and I’ll understand.”

4. It brings food equity to our community. We have enough space in our garden now that we produce more than students can taste during the school day. So we’ve been able to think about how to share food.

Some weeks (with the help of the school’s counselor) we send home fresh vegetables to school families in need. Over the summer, everything we harvested was given away to families at a weekly Garden Giveaway Day at the school. At last spring’s Great Tomato Giveaway, every family who wanted one got a free potted tomato plant, along with a list of ways to cook and eat a tomato.

And recently, over winter break, 20 or so students and their families came to the garden to harvest spinach and carrots. We took loads of it to our downtown soup kitchen, Urban Ministries, so the chef could turn it into a meal.

5. It builds community. This means a lot of different things to me. It can mean a small group of parents coming together to work on the garden beds, or the entire school community coming together to celebrate Rootfest. Or it can point to the many connections our school has made via the garden.

So far, we’ve forged partnerships with urban gardening groups like Bountiful Backyards and SEEDS. We’ve worked closely with the nutritionists from DINE for LIFE who serve public schools. We’ve helped and been helped by Duke students who want to make a difference in Durham. We’ve collaborated with other teachers and parents throughout the public school system. We’ve received grants and in-kind donations from organizations like Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina Foundation, NC Beautiful, Whole Foods, Burt’s Bees, Cabot Farms and our own school alumni group Friends of Watts. (And our PTA continues to provide the critical financial and volunteer support that sustains this program.)

With all those people and organizations helping to lift up our students and lift up our school, we’ve accomplished a bazillion times more than we would have alone.


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 ...


You think watering is simple? Think again

20 Sep

If you’re a plant, you’ve been out of luck the past couple of weeks. We haven’t had a hint of rain, and it’s been hot as blazes. Everything in my yard looks depressed.

More importantly, all the newly planted seeds and seedlings at my daughters’ school garden are in danger of withering up. I can hear them now, “What is wrong with you? Why did you plant us now? Any real gardener would have known to wait another week or two.” (That’s just my Inner Insecure Gardener, imagining what my plants must think of me.)

Anyway, the newly planted beds in the school garden need consistent watering to survive. And so, as the garden ringleader, I’m faced with a dilemma: How is that supposed to happen, exactly?

Option #1: Let classrooms manage it however they’d like.

When we planted seeds two weeks ago, I said to all 13 classrooms, “Water your seeds every day.” I think some teachers got it, and maybe some others who are new to gardening didn’t, meaning that some seeds may be getting watered while others aren’t.

Even if classrooms are watering daily, the heat has been so relentless that the seeds actually need watering multiple times a day. When I walk over to spot-check the beds (which I do every day), they are almost always dry. I wonder, “Did classrooms water this morning, only to be outdone by the sun four hours later? Or did classrooms get caught up in a particularly riveting multiplication lesson and forget to go outside at all?” It happens.

The truth is, while teachers and students certainly want the garden to thrive, they have other things to do. Keeping track of whiny, high-needs seeds isn’t at the top of their priority list.

Option #2: Set up a watering schedule for them.

Maybe my advice to “water daily” wasn’t adequate. Perhaps a watering system or schedule is in order. Should one classroom be in charge of watering everything, with duty rotating daily? Should all 13 classrooms go out daily to water only the seeds they planted, ignoring the rest? How many times should they water?

I could set up a classroom-by-classroom watering schedule, but that’s way too much work. And besides, what I really want is for people to go outside, notice “Hey, that soil looks like crushed, dry dog food,” and water the garden. Keep your eye on the garden, not the pre-printed schedule.

Option #3: Pick up a watering can and water.

And then there’s the ultimate cop-out: Walk across the street and help water myself. On the upside, I would know the seeds were being watered multiple times a day. But if I do the watering, doesn’t it keep the kids and teachers from learning about gardening themselves? That’s the sort of enabling behavior we want to avoid, right? Right.

That’s exactly what I did, though. I decided to slink over and water the beds myself — just in case. Mostly before and after school, but sometimes brazenly, right in the middle of the school day.

But don’t shake your head in disdain just yet. Let me explain.

What occurred to me is this: Not everyone needs to embrace the entire act of gardening. Maybe a select few will enjoy watering, while others will discover the joys of harvest, or warm up to a new, unfamiliar vegetable. But if we don’t grow healthy plants in the first place, people will never have the chance to make those discoveries.

Right now, the garden needs extra support, especially given the ridiculously hot weather. And many schools employ part-time gardeners to do this sort of thing, so perhaps it’s unrealistic to think that watering or anything else will just happen without a band of allies ready to support the effort. (While we’re on the topic of supporters, I should mention that parents Alexa, Silver and Tereza have been a huge help with watering.)

I still remind teachers to water. I tell them they’re going to feel so proud of those baby seeds for germinating into fine, upstanding plants.

Students in The Pittsburgh Edible Schoolyard.

And many teachers and classrooms are watering daily. I’ve checked in with some teachers and heard that they’ve brilliantly set up their own watering schedules, and I ran into two teachers before school who joined me in the garden to water. Yet another group of teachers — some of the assistants — have asked for a bit more training on “how to water,” so that’s a good sign. Maybe next year, I won’t be skulking around the garden with a watering hose.

The best indicator of all is that the seeds are actually sprouting, and the lettuce has stopped dying. Or maybe it’s dying more slowly, I can’t really tell. I’m feeling encouraged, though, so let’s not ruin this moment for me.

What I’ve learned: If you’re planting for a community/school garden, think multi-pronged attack, when it comes to watering: Offer hands-on lessons, email frequent reminders, check in face-to-face. And through it all, be ready on the sidelines with a watering can.

Also, our school garden continues to need its wonderful volunteers. If you’d like to help, but haven’t known how, here’s an opportunity — watering! Let me know if you’d like to become one of the weekend warriors who keep our plants growing.

Tomatoes, cantaloupe and squash — oh my!

24 Aug

I’ve heard from several parents that they felt so inspired by the school garden that they started on of their own at home. Here’s one such tale from parent Kisha Daniels, who has three children at George Watts:

Our adventures in gardening began around the same time as the veggies in the school’s Edible Garden began to bloom.

Our middle daughter (ever the optimist) encouraged us to believe that anything could grow with the right soil and full sun. While our son (ever the pragmatist) noted that not everything could grow in our urban landscape. Our youngest daughter (the challenger) challenged us to try!

This lead us to wonder, “What could we actually grow in our backyard?” The answer, as you can see by the pictures, is “quite a bit” (and even more veggies have come in since these were taken). Our garden has yielded big fat squash, cantaloupe, green beans, banana and chili peppers, sweet potatoes, cabbage, arugula, cauliflower and the boring old tomato.

I have to say that even I am impressed! Not only have we had fresh fruit and veggies this summer, but so have our neighbors and any random stranger that Grandpa meets.

Thank you, Watts, for introducing gardening to our family and turning my kids into urban farmers. We can’t wait until next season. Grandpa is sure that we can grow corn!

Got a story of your own to share? Post it here under “Comments”!

Victory Gardens, then and now

29 Jul

Today I was remembering the roots of the school garden. It’s funny to see all the patriotic fanfare that surrounded these old veggie patches.

Over time, they’ve changed. No longer a wartime necessity, school gardens are now a way to teach kids about the seed-to-table connection — and are one more way to build a sustainable, local food economy.

At Beecher Street School. Southington, Connecticut, May 1942. Reproduction from color slide. Photo by Fenno Jacobs. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

At Sutro Elementary school, in San Francisco

Kindergarten students at work on their victory garden plots at the Benjamin Franklin Elem. School Garden, May 1942

Making the seed-to-table connection at MLK Jr. Middle School in Berkeley, CA.

The Pittsburgh Edible Schoolyard, a collaboration between Pittsburgh Public Schools and Grow Pittsburgh.

First Lady Michelle Obama plants a kitchen garden with local students.

Harvesting a cuke in the George Watts Edible Garden

Kid-to-kid: GW students gain a garden mentor for summer

29 Jun

Talk to anyone about youth gardens in Durham, and eventually the name “SEEDS” will be uttered. It’s simply one of the best programs going, when it comes to youth-oriented urban gardening.

So I’m thrilled that the George Watts PTA is collaborating with SEEDS on the school’s summer “Garden Giveaway Day” project, in which we harvest the George Watts garden and send produce home with families.

Today we welcomed Vianey Martinez of SEEDS to the George Watts garden.

Vianay is one of six go-get-’em teens hand-picked by SEEDS leadership to work year-round in their gardens. And now she’s coming to the George Watts garden twice a week to harvest with students and run our farmers’ market-style “Garden Giveaway” veggie stand.

Ranked third in her class, Vianey is a rising junior at Southern High School. She’s involved in her school’s garden club and Future Business Leaders of America, is bilingual and completely fluent in all things planty. Today, as we harvested, she shared English and Spanish gardening vocabulary words with the students enrolled in GROW.

We were floored by the number of ripe vegetables in the garden this week — the most squash yet (including the giant one pictured below), a mass of cucumbers, basil and tomatoes, which we tasted right on the spot.

Picked today: One giant squash, dubbed "Monster Squash."

We have so many cucumbers growing, they form "patches."

Vianey’s goal is to one day combine her love of math (economics) with her love of agriculture. Her future looks bright. Vianey, thanks for sharing a little bit of your knowledge and passion with our students!

Three more garden views: Bumblebees pollinate...

Bell peppers begin to emerge...

... and the hibiscus is in full bloom.

The Great Tomato Giveaway!

19 May

Today at George Watts we’re sending home free tomato plants with families. Yours truly will be trotting out plants after school, accosting parents in the pick-up line. I sure hope we get a good response, because I have a LOT of tomato plants, people.

The idea is to encourage people to grow their own and become addicted to how great a fresh-grown vs. bulk-shipped tomato is. The other benefit: When kids grow it, they’ll eat it. Especially if it’s added to a grilled-cheese sandwich.

How to replicate it: This particular project happened because our school nutritionist (who works for the Department of Health) offered us the plants and bags and bags of potting soil. They were leftover from another plant giveaway happening at an East Durham school. A smaller batch of tomato seedlings were donated by a parent, who germinated more than she could plant at home.