‘Mary, Mary, quite contrary,
How does your garden grow?
With silver bells and cockleshells,
And pretty maids all in a row.’
Illustrations of this familiar nursery rhyme tend to show proper young ladies in beribboned batiste holding colorful watering cans with clean hands, but while the students at the Heath Elementary School do all they can to make their garden grow, there is no sign of batiste.
Real modern children favor denim and t-shirts and hands dirty with planting, weeding and harvesting.
Five years ago Carin and Chris Burnes, who with their children are avid organic gardeners, started a Garden Club at the school. This was essentially an extra-curricular activity, but two years ago, Virginia Gary, a teacher, saw how gardening could be integrated into the curriculum. Many parents feared their children would not be interested, but since there is as much fun as learning in the garden those fears were unfounded.
Gary explained the ways the garden fits into the standard curriculum. The theme for all the kindergarten children is Explore; there is everything to explore in the garden.
Gary teaches one of the Primary classes this year (Heath School combines ages in some classes) and the science curriculum focuses on Life Cycles. She said last spring students planted pole beans with beans they had saved from the previous year’s crop. That was a concrete example of complete life cycle.
Third and fourth graders study plants. Where better than in a garden?
It is a challenge to find a garden hook in the fifth and sixth grade curriculum, but this year they will be doing soil testing and studying the implications, as well as helping spread wood chip mulch around the perimeter of the garden in every gardener’s never ending battle against weeds.
Each classroom accepts responsibility for a section of the garden. The kindergarteners got the biggest plants – Hubbard squash!
Jorie McCloud’s class grew the native American Three Sisters, corn, squash and beans, but with a twist. Instead of sweet corn McCloud grew broom corn. These older children combine their garden work with what they learned at Old Sturbridge Village about brooms. They will make their own broom and research the capabilities of the brooms they find in their own homes.
When it was all planted the garden included all the usual veggies.
It took some community help to start the garden in the spring. Mike Smead rototilled and Dominic Musacchio, Shelburne Farm and Garden, and Avery’s General Store donated seeds and plants. David Gott of the Benson Place blueberry farm worked with the older students on pruning the school’s fruit trees.
All the students spend some time in the garden every week. Working with the cold frames provide extra excitement because the glass sections are not hinged and need to be lifted and laid on the grass. And what enjoys that warm space under the glass after it has been in the sun for a while? Snakes!
“Yes,” Gary sighed, “everyone loves snakes. And catching crickets. And watching caterpillars. I am hoping we can plant a butterfly and hummingbird garden so we can attract even more birds and butterflies.
“Thinning the carrots is not so much fun. Still, one child got so carried away with thinning, we had to replant that section. It’s all learning,” Gary said.
The garden was tended during the summer by families who took responsibility for a week or two. Some families spent a lot of time in the garden together. Families were also welcome to harvest the produce as it came in.
Now that school is in session produce has turned up in cafeteria lunches. The children loved digging up the potatoes and washing them. And eating them, However, the big stuffed baked potatoes were not from the garden. Even though the youngest students had dug and washed their own small potatoes, they had trouble grasping the concept that the big potatoes did not come from their own garden.
Teachers and students continue to learn, as I have, that work in the garden leads down many paths, history, math, writing, art and music. They measure and map the garden, keep journals of the garden’s progress, study how plants like potatoes originated in the New World, are transplanted to Europe, become diseased and send thousands of Irish immigrants to the United States to escape the great Potato Famine. This is a whole different aspect of the ‘Columbian Exchange’, the movement of plants both east and west across the Atlantic.
They look at the mysterious zucchini-pumpkin cross and talk about pollinators, pollination, and hybridization.
“We want to feed the school,” Gary said. “That is one of our goals.” To that end they are planning ways to improve the garden. “We need a shed. Right now it takes nearly half a period just to bring the wheelbarrow and tools to the garden. We want to make raised beds which would make it easier for the students, and keep the soil from compacting.” Grants are being written. All donations are welcome.
“Inch by inch, row by row,” this garden is growing, as are the gardeners. They grow in their understanding of the soil, in their appreciation of the bounty they can help produce, in the discovery of where they fit, and how they affect the natural systems of our planet. That is a full curriculum. ###
In early June I visited the Heath School for Garden Day. The kindergarteners were going to plant sunflowers around their sand pile. They dug a trench but needed bags of top soil. Heavy bags. The girls were just as strong and devoted to duty as the boys.
The sunflowers grew all summer, as best they could this cold wet summer. Another lesson in the garden, but the kindergarteners were perfectly happy.
Between the Rows October 10, 2009