A recent twitter browse brought me across a curious share by Diane Carriero, principal of the Fuller Meadow K-2 school in Middleton, Massachusetts.
With so much attention these days brought upon nutrition concerns in our children and population as a whole, I contacted Diane and asked if she would be willing to share her school’s garden experience with me. What I received was some great perspective regarding the reasonable expectations, challenges and successes one can expect with a first year school garden.
To give some background, the Fuller Meadow school educates approximately 270 students annually with only a small percentage of those students requiring free lunch. That being said, Diane noted that students were still unfamiliar with many fruits and vegetable origins or existence!
To counter this void is both the students’ diet and understanding of where food comes from a garden was established in the school courtyard. Much of the work was done by volunteers, with one community member, Gretchen Fishman, taking point on the garden initiative. While the planning and development of the early stages was parent volunteer driven, students were still able to participate in the creation of the garden via a “Plant a Seed” program at the town’s Earth Day Festival and later on during a weekend gathering where families came together to physically prepare the garden beds and cleanup the courtyard.
When I visited the garden in early July, lettuce, baby carrots, basil, pumpkin, butternut squash, and sweet pea plants were already beginning to grow tall along with a patch of tomato plants put in by the schools first graders. Carreiro and Fishman admit that much of this first crop will not ultimately end up on students’ plates as first envisioned last fall. That being said, the food will still get into the community’s hands as the weekly harvest through the summer months will be donated to the local food pantry.
The future looks bright for the garden too, as Diane outlined a plan to further develop the compost system with the help of a zero-waste fermentation process known as “bokashi.” Carreiro also hopes to invest in small tools so that students might be able to cultivate the garden during or after school hours and to better integrate the garden into already established learning goals in each classroom.
For school’s looking for guidance on how to build their own school gardens, Principal Carriero and volunteer Fishman have some recommendations:
1) Recruit Volunteers:
As Carreiro put it, “parent volunteers are a must.” With the occasional need for upkeep and work outside of school hours (including the summer) the educators themselves can’t be expected to own the garden. Carreiro admits that the garden started (and still rests) on the shoulders of Fishman and the volunteers that she is able to include in its maintenance. That being said…
2) Connect with Kids and Educators:
For Fishman, connecting kids began by recruiting them during the town’s Earth Day Festival. “Kids were given the choice to plant peas, beans, lettuce, or spinach into a two planters, one for the school and another for themselves to take home.” Fishman also took a school poll revealing the students’ tremendous enthusiasm for carrots, after which she, “absolutely had to go get some to add them to the garden.” With educators, Fishman hopes the new year will bring an opportunity to better connect. With the garden now established and growing crops it would be great to provide teachers an opportunity to design curriculum and activities that fit well with already established learning goals. Fishman eagerly agreed that professional development including a tour of the garden at the beginning of the year would be a great start!
3) Plan Ahead:
There is plenty to consider when building a school garden, from the design and layout of the garden itself to funding, ongoing upkeep, to fitting the most learning opportunities into the space. For Fishman, planning started in the fall when she applied for Whole Foods, “Garden Grant.” Carreiro also turned to the local Board of Trade for donations of everything from supplies to cash donations. While the total cost was not ultimately covered, Carreiro was “very thankful for their donations.” With regards to planning, for Fuller Meadow some of the work was taken out of their hands with old planting beds already in place but under-cared for and overgrown. If given the choice, Fishman would’ve used “square foot beds” packed with varieties of plants that would “grow so thick the weeds would have nowhere to plant their roots.” Their size would also be perfect for short arms to reach and tend!
4) Start Small:
By focusing on just a few beds and plants to start, the garden acts as an experiment itself allowing volunteers and teachers to “see what works, and what students will and won’t eat!” By setting goals on the small side, the project itself does not become overwhelming and leaves more room for additional community members to voice and bring in their input. Fishman has already started to learn where to best invest her time… “Green beans have been a struggle” she admits, “but lettuce is good!”
I’m curious to hear from other garden enthusiasts too regarding how they would approach a school garden, particularly one designed for the New England area. Please share your thoughts and suggestions in the comments below! Thanks again to Diane Carreiro and Gretchen Fishman for their time, thoughts, and dedication to their students!