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How Does Your School Garden Grow?

Volunteers thrive on sharing their gardening passion with kids


(Editor’s Note: We’ve entered the season of the year when fresh produce is abundant in home gardens and at farmers’ markets. This month, Next Avenue is focusing on how gardens can not only provide healthy options, but can also make an impact on the community and have an overall effect on health and wellbeing. This is the second in the series.)

If you love gardening and have a desire to share that love with school children, getting on the school-garden bandwagon may be for you. Here are some projects which are making a significant difference in their communities:

How One School Garden Grows

Belchertown Public Schools in Belchertown, Mass. won a 2019 Gro More Good Grassroots Grant through an organization called Kids Gardening. As part of the STEM “Joy in the Classroom Lessons,” Belchertown High School science teacher Louise Levy facilitates the “It Takes a Village to Raise a Meal for a Village” program in afterschool sessions. The lessons focus on how to care for seeds as they grow into crops, so children know that food grows from the ground. Some 880 students from three contingent schools work on the project. The garden, which is in front of Swift River Elementary School, is within walking distance for all of the students.

“As a volunteer, it was gratifying to see how well the children responded to participating in the gardening adventure. It almost seemed as though they were transported into another realm.”

The garden contains 46 raised beds, a temporary outdoor classroom, a pollinator garden, a rhubarb-pumpkin patch and a three sisters  (companion planting) bed of beans, corn and squash.

During the school year, volunteers work with students to maintain the space and help deliver the harvest to the three school cafeterias and the Belchertown Senior Center. “Volunteers guide the students in the proper ways to tend to the plants and how to ensure the composter has the right mix of materials to turn into soil,” Levy explains.

In this, the first year of the Belchertown Summer Meals program, 30 volunteers and their families worked all summer long and harvested enough produce for the program to provide a hot lunch every weekday for

Belchertown School gardenCredit: Louise Levy
A view of the Belchertown School Gardens in Belchertown, Mass.

some 150 food-insecure students as well as students in summer camps. Excess crops were donated to the Belchertown Senior Center in July and will again be donated to the center in August.

“The Belchertown School Garden is growing by leaps and bounds,” says Levy. By mid-July, the garden had topped 100 pounds of produce. “And, that’s just since school got out in June!” she adds.

‘Gardening Has Always Been a Passion for Me’

On a typical day, Levy may answer volunteers’ questions about weed identifications, troubleshoot watering arrangements, fertilize crops, pull weeds and deal with potato beetle larva pests.

Five years ago, the program had three teachers, including Levy, who gave gardening lessons on two small plots, with no budget. “Then, some parents stepped up and founded the Belchertown Parent Teacher Garden Organization, drawing in volunteers of all ages and providing the inspiration for us to go after grant monies,” Levy says.

Deborah Lapointe started volunteering with the project two years ago. “Gardening has always been a passion for me,” she says.  Lapointe asked the teachers to give her a plot to use to create a pollinator garden (one planted predominantly with flowers that provide nectar or pollen for pollinating insects) and broke ground in spring 2019.

“My hopes are to teach the elementary schoolchildren about pollinators and native plants that support the bees, moths, caterpillars and of course butterflies,” she says. “My vision for the spring of 2020 is that [we’ll] have the children grow seeds and plant them in the ground to teach them how important it is to our society to help pollinators.”

AARP Volunteers and School Gardens

In 2018, more than 100 volunteers from AARP Maryland and the AARP Foundation worked with REAL School Gardens (a program now known as Out Teach) to build an outdoor classroom at a southwest Baltimore school serving 400 students. According to Jennifer Holz at AARP Maryland, the garden is unique because although it’s located at a public school (James McHenry Elementary/Middle School), a public walkway runs through the garden beside the school.

Heidi Stevens, community school coordinator at James McHenry, coordinates the outdoor learning center, initiated and funded through the AARP Foundation, for the school.

“The purpose of the garden is to expose children to where their food comes from,” Stevens says. Twenty-five volunteers have worked in the garden, along with schoolchildren.

The small garden is in its second year and has five planters: two for flowers and three for vegetables. This summer, students took home harvested crops, like tomatoes and string beans, and planted fall crops such as cabbage and broccoli.

Paulette Fenelon is an AARP volunteer in the AARP Maryland state office in Baltimore, about a mile from the school. She attends garden shows and garden nursery events and reads gardening books. “I love gardening!” she says.

Credit: Henry Kenney III
Outdoor classroom at James McHenry Elementary/Middle School in Baltimore

Fenelon spent a day at James McHenry, working with kids. “As a volunteer, it was gratifying to see how well the children responded to participating in the gardening adventure. It almost seemed as though they were transported into another realm. I hope the exposure to inner city gardening for the children continues and even expands. A garden club might even be great for them!” says Fenelon.

Floyd Gregory volunteered in the garden this summer. An AARP volunteer for 10 years and amateur gardener for seven, Gregory spent a day at James McHenry working with school kids. He showed them how to pull weeds, turn over garden soil and loosen soil around the plants before putting them in the ground.

“When school children at James McHenry work in the garden, they get a chance to focus on other things outside their own lives,” Gregory says. “It’s great for them to plant things and watch the plants grow, to see how food is grown.”

Learn More About Getting Involved

There are several resources available for those interested in becoming involved in local school gardening programs.

Kids Gardening has information about how to start a school garden program. Gro More Good grants can help fund growing projects.

To learn more about the benefits and rewards of school garden programs, visit OutTeach and Action for Healthy Kids.

By Debbie L. Miller
A freelance writer since 1990, Debbie L. Miller lives in Brooklyn, New York where she also pens plays, monologues, short stories, memoir, and humor pieces. She won the 2017 Mona Schreiber Prize for Humorous Fiction and Nonfiction. She is a frequent contributor to Next Avenue and an avid gardener.

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