For kids in Lamoille County, learning is in full bloom this spring.

Gardens are a great way to teach kids where their food comes from, how ecosystems work and how plants grow, educators say.

The Morristown, Stowe and Wolcott elementary schools, Stowe Middle and High schools, and Peoples Academy High School and Middle Level all have school gardens.

“We’ve had nothing but positive experiences with it, just seeing the kids, in particular at the elementary school level, how excited they get” working in the garden, said Jeffery Brynn, food services director for Lamoille South, which oversees schools in Elmore, Morristown and Stowe.

The students “were out helping spread compost” at Peoples Academy Middle Level the other day, Brynn said. “There’s a genuine interest in it, and it’s good for them to see how much hard work goes into growing this stuff. Hopefully they’ll take that in a lot of different ways.”

Gardens at Lamoille County schools are primarily for vegetables, such as squash, potatoes, pumpkins, carrots, cabbages and herbs, as well as tomatoes, Brynn said.

Peoples Academy has had a garden for four years; Stowe kids have been gardening for seven, and the garden at Morristown Elementary School is fairly new, Brynn said.

“It’s been a goal of ours for a number of years to do it, kind of in conjunction with all the federal regulations to promote a healthier, fresher environment within the cafeterias. What better way than if we could start to grow our own produce?” Brynn said.

Peoples Academy’s garden is about 50 feet by 50 feet, plus a hoop house where tomatoes are grown, and a pollinator garden to attract insects such as bees.

Stowe Elementary School has a 15-by-30-foot garden, plus 10 raised beds where vegetables are grown, and Stowe Middle/High School’s garden is similar, Brynn said.

The garden projects are funded through the school food-service budget, Brynn said; grants are available, and Lamoille South has applied for them, but right now the garden program is funded through the district.

The vegetables grown in school gardens have been on the menu in the past, Brynn said.

“Because we’re still growing and it’s getting to the point where it can kind of sustain itself, our first and second year, we had to supplement it with other farms, but we’re getting to that point where we can specifically put certain items” in school lunches, Brynn said.

Behavior changes

Molly Gellar was hired in August as Lamoille South’s farm-to-school coordinator, and says working in the garden affects students’ behavior, and piques their interest in where their food comes from.

“I notice a lot of behavioral changes in kids in the garden. A lot of kids have a calmer and more engaged attitude when they’re in the garden than when they’re in classrooms,” Gellar said. “I think it also offers students a look into what’s happening in their communities, since we are such an agricultural region here. It teaches kids about what’s going on in the world around them.

“We do connect farming and gardening to what they’re already learning … so a lot of science, math, literacy, art happens in connection with the garden.”

Gellar says a lot of kids today are disconnected from gardening and farming.

“There are a lot of kids here from agricultural families or who have gardens at home, and then there’s a large portion of kids who don’t have those connections already,” she said. “I think I’ve also noticed a lot more kids have an increase in willingness to try new things and an excitement about trying new vegetables and fruits, as opposed to kind of a hesitation that I noticed when we first started our taste test program.”

Wolcott garden club

At Wolcott Elementary, the entire student body is part of what teachers call “garden club,” and what students call “Guardians of the Garden.”

Wolcott Elementary has been working with the Center for an Agricultural Economy in Hardwick to get its garden program started. It now includes garlic, squash, fruit trees and raspberries, said Jon Greenia, educational media specialist there.

About three times a year, the whole school troops out to the garden and weeds, cleans up and harvests what’s ready, Greenia said.

“Kids like digging holes. Kids like using tools, especially real tools, not toy shovels. They do like the idea of growing food,” Greenia said. “I think there’s a certain element of separation from the food sourcing that kids have where they do almost implicitly recognize that it’s just easier to get a Lunchable,” but “what we’re really trying to focus on them learning is that connection to how it’s made,” Greenia said.

Gardening helps teach kids early about the importance of environmental stewardship, said Maree Gaetani-Hutchins of Kids Gardening, a Vermont-based nonprofit that connects kids in schools to gardening.

“The impact that we see is just amazing. I was just in the New York City area and met some third-graders in Connecticut who had never seen a butterfly,” Gaetani-Hutchins said.

“What gardening does at any age, there’s no way you can plant a seed and it grows into a flower” and not feel changed as a person, she said. “For kids who grow up in urban areas, they’re so disconnected from that. Kids can identify up to a thousand logos but not even 10 plants in their yard.

“At any age, when kids get connected to nature in that way at school, it really ignites curiosity and wonder.”

Gaetani-Hutchins remembers a student who never cared about littering before she began to garden, but now, every day, she picks up the trash she finds in her neighborhood.

“She’s starting in her neighborhood because we have to take care of the plants. That’s like magic. When they realize that they’re taking care of the plants, then they start to understand the role of plants in our lives and the fact that plants are really taking care of us. That’s a lifelong lesson,” Gaetani-Hutchins said.

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