September 29, 2013

School garden plants seeds of learning

Misty Watson

— Eight-year-old Ivan Salgado didn’t used to think he liked tomatoes.

But thanks to Brookwood Elementary’s student garden, he decided he was wrong.

“I found out they’re really good and sweet,” Ivan said. “My favorite part was when we planted broccoli. I love broccoli.”

“We think it’s wonderful,” he said of the garden, which was the focus of the Dalton Herb Society’s September meeting last Tuesday.

Parent volunteers Anna Verhoeff, a horticulturist, and Carmen Flammini, an agricultural engineer, oversee much of the garden, the planting, care and harvest. They spoke to the Herb Society, whose members’ attention was focused mainly on an herb spiral tower, which is designed to utilize a small space and keep the herb’s roots from rotting in too much water.

The herb tower is designed so plants that need more water are near the bottom and ones that need less are planted near the top. Care has to be put into placing the herbs so they receive the right amount of sunlight and shade as well, Verhoeff said.

“If you don’t have much space, you can utilize the herb tower,” said Jean Ray O’Neal, Herb Society president. “Or if you have low lying areas, it’s a way to get them up. Herb roots need to aerate ... This is such an educational tool. Children have the ability to taste the food they’re planting, and you can introduce them to nutritional vegetables, not just white potatoes.”

Fruits, vegetables and herbs grown in the garden are used in the school’s cafeteria. The garden is also used to teach students about several different topics, including science, nutrition and sustainable living.

“This is an outdoor learning space,” Brookwood Principal Celeste Martin said. “There’s enough of a certain vegetable to be able for all the students to eat it.”

“Science starts outside with nature,” she said. “Our kids love the space. We’ve seen a lot of benefit and growth with the kids. They appreciate real food. It’s not processed ... It’s wonderful to have this space.”

In the cafeteria on a day something from the garden is being used, there are signs letting students know it’s one of their crops, she said.

“My favorite thing is we get to plant it and then eat it,” 8-year-old Caroline Fox said. “Strawberries and lettuce are my favorite. I didn’t think I was going to like the lettuce, but I do. We have plants and we can eat it in the cafeteria. They’re very tasty.”

The winter planting season has just begun, and each of the school’s students — there are more than 600 — get a turn planting, as well as harvesting. They also help keep the garden weeded. This season’s crops include broccoli, cauliflower (which some of the students call “white broccoli”), Swiss chard, onions and kale.

“It’s a powerful way to teach the kids about different subjects,” Flammini said. “We saw how much they enjoyed it last year. When kids get hands-on projects like this they learn easily. We’re able to incorporate several subjects, nutrition, and we did an erosion segment.”

Flammini and Verhoeff want to introduce the children to a variety of produce, but also want to keep some of the items they know students enjoy.

“We lowered the variety this year so they can have more of each of the vegetables,” Verhoeff said. “The school has been really supportive.”

The garden has a greenhouse, a few raised beds and rows where crops are planted. The greenhouse was paid for with a grant and volunteers assembled it during one of the United Way’s Make a Difference Days.

Martin is glad the Herb Society decided to meet at the school’s garden.

“It’s important for the students to see there’s an interest in the space,” she said.