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‘Seed-to-snack’ garden grows healthy snackers

28 Feb

You’ve heard of “farm to fork,” right? Think of this season’s garden as a “seed-to-snack” project.

Students at George Watts Montessori started planting seeds last week, and they’ll keep going until school gets out. By April, students should be able to start picking from the school’s edible garden to make their own classroom snacks. Imagine walking outside to pluck a head of lettuce — or cut off a flowering broccoli or pull up fresh carrots — then going back to class to make your own delicious recipe for snack.

Last year, some classrooms made lettuce-based salads. Others made salads from freshly picked broccoli, or simply pulled a few carrots to supplement a fruit snack. What creative concoctions will they come up with this year??

Here’s what we’re planting this season, and when:


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.

Harvest-to-Home Giveaway!

17 Dec

This week and last, I sent home large bags of fresh-grown lettuce and spinach from the Edible Garden to school families.*

We’ve done this sort of giveaway before, and I’ll tell you why:

1. We can find good homes for vegetables that might otherwise languish uneaten in the garden.

2. Families who receive something fresh from the garden become instant fans. The garden can always use fans.

3. Fresh, nutritious foods have become luxury goods that many families can’t afford.

Let’s talk about that troubling #3. I just finished reading a recent Newsweek cover story called “Divided We Eat.” The thrust of the article was that in modern America, “the richest Americans can afford to buy berries out of season out of season at Whole Foods, while the food insecure often eat what they can: highly caloric, mass-produced foods like pizza and packaged cakes that fill them up quickly.”

I don’t want to go all preachy on you, but it troubles me that people are eating in two different Americas. About 13% of N.C. households are food insecure. Roughly 60% of our school’s children are on Free & Reduced Lunch, an indicator of poverty.

So this is something small we can do: Share the bounty of our school’s garden with the people in our community. Bridge the “Dinner Divide” with a gift of salad or spinach.

And keep working as a community on a more sustainable solution.

* I don’t know the identities of the families receive the giveaway veggies. I package up the goods; our school’s administration makes the deliveries.

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

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.

From dull to delicious: the making of a garden

26 Aug

Before I post images of the school grounds as they are now — with the new walking trail, boulders and gardening space — here’s a look at the first few months of the Edible Garden project, beginning in January 2009.

It all started with a patch of grass surrounded by a chain-link fence, a vision and a lot of awesome volunteers!

These paths were made for walking

30 Jul

If only you could look out my living room window and see what I’m seeing: The work crew is digging the new walking path for the George Watts playground as I write, and it’s all I can do not to run outside and trot around on all those new rocks. They’ve got backhoes and everything.

Here’s what’s happening today:

Also, I want you to meet Jonah Roberts of Tributary, who’s doing the work. Check out what he says about the project (and try to ignore the sweet, babbling 5 yr old beside me):

Here’s what things looked like as of Thursday. I’ll post more images as the transformation continues…

Raking out the gravel

... and dumping more gravel.