Cultivating green thumbs

by Brittany Wentzell

  • <p>BRITTANY WENTZELL PHOTO</p><p>Logan Hebb, Colin Robar, Mallory Huntley, Jack Slaunwhite, and Cara Buchanan were out in the West Northfield Elementary School&#8217;s garden recently, picking berries during their lunch break.</p>
  • <p>BRITTANY WENTZELL PHOTO</p><p>Logan, Kera, and Jeremy check out some pumpkins at Petite Riviere Elementary that they helped grow.</p>
  • <p>BRITTANY WENTZELL PHOTOS</p><p>Students at Petite Riviere Elementary hold up the potatoes they just harvested.</p>
  • <p>Sunflowers growing at West Northfield Elementary.</p>

It's nearly the end of the harvesting season but little hands are just starting to reap what they sowed last spring.

Community gardens at schools are growing in popularity on the South Shore with nearly every elementary school adding one as well as at least one middle school.

West Northfield has had a community garden for around 10 years. It began with Grade 5 and physical education teacher John Atherton's initiative.

"I started it because I've always had a passion for gardening and I garden at home and I thought it was a great opportunity for the kids and seeing where their food is grown," said Atherton.

Since then the garden has only grown. Even as Atherton speaks to LighthouseNOW, students on their lunch break are combing the garden, plucking strawberries and blueberries and popping them into their mouths.

West Northfield kicks off their gardening season in the spring with special events.

"In the spring we normally do a few of what we call 'after school garden parties' where we invite any parents any families who want to come," said Atheron.

Atherton's students don't garden as a part of their curriculum, but every lunch hour he makes an announcement to ask if the students would like to join him in the garden and many kids take him up on the offer.

"It's not necessarily a set club," he said.

Jack Slaunwhite, a student at the elementary school, and his father sometimes tend the garden in summer as well as at school.

"We normally squish potato bugs and pick blueberries," said Slaunwhite.

His favourite plants are the carrots and strawberries. A love of the carrots is something other teachers noted as well, saying they're a lot tastier than the store bought ones, and that they help draw the students in.

"They taste good and it's nice to know that you pick it and eat it and it's not bagged," said Slaunwhite.

Atherton tries to plant things in the spring that will grow in the fall. Their garden is expansive and includes several raised beds, containers and bushes. Large sunflowers wave in the light breeze and all types of gourds and squash can be spotted on the grounds - some edible, others decorative. There are 20 highbush blueberry plants on the property.

"Onions, potatoes, we did tomatoes the last week of school ... we did garlic for the first time this year," Atherton said.

The school encourages community members to pop by over the summer and pick things like berries. Other items will go to the school, including pumpkins for Halloween, free snacks for students, and root vegetables for the cafeteria.

Bringing the community in

At Petite Riviere Elementary School the garden is a part of the school curriculum as well as part of extra-curricular activities.

The little school has become a hub of activity for their community and the garden is no exception. The community not only pitches in with the garden's maintenance, but also in the sale of some of the items, such as garlic at a local store, which helps pay for things like seeds.

Petite has raised beds made of stone donated from a local quarry. Manure and compost are also donated. Their little garden is a fenced-in sunny slope near their ball field.

"I think most people in this school community are invested in every project we do," said Jill Swaine, a parent who helps maintain the garden during their summer rotation and during the school year. "I think it's part of school pride and part of our community."

The school also had a garden party where students and families came to plant seeds and then put them in the greenhouse.

It's all about community for Petite, right up to eating the food. Swaine says the children learn about "stone soup" - a children's story about a community that brings together ingredients from each of their households to make one big meal for everyone.

"We took that story and last year some of the parents, after harvesting ... we made soup from scratch and served it up as a free meal for everybody," said Kristy Boutilier, school counsellor and resource teacher at the elementary.

All of the classes were given a different vegetable to prepare, which they then brought to the kitchen. The students then sang a song about stone soup and ate a meal together. The students also make things like salsa, coleslaw, and other recipes they can share.

"I love how it's full circle. They planted the seeds, they tend the garden, they help harvest the garden; some of us take care of it all summer so I know my daughter feels very invested in this, it's like her other garden," said Swaine. "It's amazing to see how proud they are of that."

Community is also an aspect for West Northfield, which also signed up families for a week each to look after the garden through weeding and watering over the summer which Atherton says was a great success.

That's something Vanessa Henwood, a teacher at South Queens Middle School says she's struggled with.

"That's the hard part, getting the volunteers over the summer," said Henwood, who pushed for a community garden after the new middle school opened in 2014.

She's hoping to reach out to the wider community to get volunteers who may not necessarily be parents or family of students, but rather people who live nearby and wish to take a week-long shift maintaining the garden.

Henwood says she no longer plants things like beans or peas because of the amount of sun the spot gets and the low level of maintenance the garden receives. Mostly she focuses on root vegetables and lettuces which are now being used by the cafeteria for meals.

The school is near Liverpool's downtown and many of her students stopped by to grab carrots and other items from the garden - something that thrilled Henwood as some of her students barely ate vegetables voluntarily before starting to garden.

Henwood uses the garden as a part of her curriculum both in science and in family studies. The lessons come full circle too. The Grade 7 science students do the planting and then the following fall, the Grade 8 home studies students harvest the food and use it to cook, so students get to not only understand the plant cycle, but also get the rewards of their hard work from the previous year.

"Both grade levels will get a good part of it," said Henwood.

All of the teachers and volunteers say they're amazed by the amount of students who didn't know where their food comes from, despite many living in rural areas, but many of the students are now bringing the lessons learned at school, home with them.

"It's good doing this at school because I've heard so many stories of kids who are now doing it at home," said Atherton.

"If the kids are enthusiastic about it, parents get enthusiastic about it too," said Boutilier.

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