“All of this is to teach our children where food comes from,” said Tricia Miller, volunteer coordinator for the Giving Garden at Union-Pleasant Elementary School in Hamburg.
“If children grow it and taste it, their willingness to eat it and try more things grows.”
The garden at Union-Pleasant Elementary School started three years ago because parents were concerned about food in the schools, Miller said. They decided a garden would be a good way to educate children about healthy food choices.
Working in the garden actually makes the kids excited to take a bag of basil home to their family, Miller said, and she hopes the children’s enthusiasm for fresh produce will extend to their families and eventually to the entire community. If families start looking for healthy food choices, perhaps local restaurants will offer healthier option in their menus.
“I hope there will be this great ripple effect of wellness in the community,” she said.
Everything in the Giving Garden is organically grown from heirloom seeds.
Miller and Mary Beiter, garden manager, encourage children to taste food from the garden that they might not have eaten at home.
At one tasting, they made canapes on crackers with produce from the garden including tomatoes, borage (an herb), and nasturtium and marigold (yes, those are edible flowers!). The kids enjoyed making designs with the ranch spread as they created the canapes.
Plants grown this year included long beans, edamame soybeans, bok choy, swiss chard, cucumbers, lettuce, snow peas, cumin, fenugreek, black mustard seed, umpalampa eggplant, apples and raspberries. Asparagus will be ready to be harvested next year.
All of the classrooms have the opportunity to work in the garden. While the garden is well suited to science lessons on plant life, it is used in other subjects as well.
In social studies, students can learn about food of other cultures. Each of the nine raised beds in the garden has a different cultural theme, including Italian, Chinese and Indian. One of the many plants in the Mexican bed is sweet mace or Mexican tarragon, an aromatic herb that you can see at right.
In math, students can can work on their counting skills by counting the number or tomatoes on a vine, or they can practice measuring and division with square foot gardening.
Two clubs also use the garden. Garden Club is a school club, and Earth Scouts is a non-school organization.
The garden continues to expand. Students in the Peace Club at Hamburg High School are scheduled to make a composter out of cement blocks. The parents involved with the Giving Garden are raising money to build an enclosed outdoor classroom, like a picnic shelter, that can be used even if it rains. Miller hopes it will have a greenhouse and a cook station.
Take-home lessons for your own garden
No matter whose garden I look at, I always come away with ideas to use in my own garden. Here are some lessons you might be apply to apply in your own garden.
Tip #1: Plan a garden that is interesting after August.
During summer, the period that most people think of as gardening time, classes aren’t involved in the school garden because school isn’t even in session. Families to tend the garden during the summer, each signing up for a one-week shift and taking home whatever they harvest that week.
The students return to school right when most of us are hanging up our gardening gloves. What can the students do in September and October?
“There’s still a lot growing,” Miller said last week, surveying the peas, kale, carrots, marigolds, nasturtium, pumpkins and other plants. “And we still have to harvest seeds.”
Get outside in your garden to harvest any herbs and vegetables that are still producing. If you don’t have any this year, plan to plant some for next year.
Tip #2: Be curious about new vegetables and herbs
Have you eaten a marigold or a purple carrot? Be open to new food plant choices. If someone offers you a new herb or vegetable plant, find a spot for it in your garden.
Tip #3: Get a rain barrel
You may have spots in your own yard that are hard to reach by hose. A rain barrel can provide a convenient supply of water and help the environment, too. The barrel doesn’t have to be positioned up against your house; you could collect the water running off the roof of a shed.
How to start your own school garden
If you’re interested in starting a garden at your school, you can start small by just growing herbs in a classroom and making pesto, Miller suggested.
From there, find teachers and parents who are interested in helping. She noted that Union-Pleasant is a large school with 900 students, so they are fortunate to have a large pool of parents who might volunteer.
When you want to expand, you can look for a grant. The Giving Garden received a grant from Hidden Valley, the company that makes salad dressings.
“There are so many grants out there,” Miller said. It’s not hard to get a grant if you have an established group that is willing to work, she added.