Garden time at Leverett Elementary School
Teacher Dawn Ward (left) coaxes a beetle off the arm of Griffin Connor, age 10, (right) into a "look box" so that he and Ben Field, age 9, (middle) can look at it under magnification, at Leverett Elementary School, Tuesday morning, May 13th.
Tessa Williams, 9, and Jillian Oster, 10, paint flower pots that they will be sold at a fundraiser to help support the school's greenhouse.
Tessa Williams, 9, waters plants in one of the side gardens, next to the greenhouse at Leverett Elementary School.
Last fall, fourth-graders working in the Leverett Elementary School greenhouse planted garlic — and were amazed to discover that, like flower bulbs, it came up this spring.
“We did this garlic experiment,” explained Devon Bachand, showing a visitor the bed he and his fourth-grade friends planted last fall. “We didn’t think they would survive the winter.” Survive they certainly did. “What is cool with garlic is how the scape curls around,” said greenhouse teacher Dawn Marvin Ward. The scapes or flower stalks as well as the garlic bulbs are used in the school cafeteria.
The greenhouse project began when a parent committee tried to find ways to make cafeteria food healthier and more local, said the school’s principal, Anne Ross. The parents wanted to build a greenhouse, but funding was a problem. Ross said the committee wrote to area businesses, mostly banks. People’s Bank funded the entire cost of the greenhouse, which was erected in 2011 by a group of parent volunteers led by Lydia Peterson and Susan Chang.
Now Ross helps with The Lettuce Club, a group of students who grow and harvest lettuce for the cafeteria. They also grow ‘Bright Lights’Swiss chard and ‘Rainbow’ carrots. Marvin Ward has pictures of proud children holding large carrots, garlic plants and radishes, all of which they grew themselves.
School gardens are becoming part of the curriculum across the Pioneer Valley. Now, however, there is a national interest in healthy cafeteria food and in children learning where their vegetables come from.
The greenhouse project is related to the school curriculum and state education standards.
“I pull something out of the curriculum for each grade,” Marvin Ward said. For instance when one grade was studying Colonial times, it grew plants used in those days. The fifth grade is studying Meso-America so it has a Three Sisters Garden (beans, squash and corn) as they were grown by the Mayans.
One problem last year with the Three Sisters Garden was mice, which ate the corn seeds. Marvin Ward quickly substituted sunflower plants for the “posts’ on which the beans grow instead of corn stalks.
“If things go wrong, we troubleshoot,” she explained. The mice were a real challenge. The little rodents were so bold they ran around the greenhouse in broad daylight. The children didn’t want to trap them, “so we scared them away,” Marvin Ward reported. They drew pictures of owls and brought in a rubber snake, actually several rubber snakes. They put up a sign warning of a guard snake on duty. “The kids got such a kick out of that.” Their tactics worked and the mice disappeared.
Marvin Ward supervises children in grades one through six in the greenhouse, where each grade has its own raised bed. There are also separate beds for the cafeteria project. The preschoolers and kindergarten students work on a courtyard garden closer to the school building.
A small group from each grade may select to work in the greenhouse in place of other optional activities, once a week.
The children who choose to work on the greenhouse project seem very enthusiastic. During recess three girls came to volunteer to work. Half a dozen fourth-graders raced across the playground one morning last week for their half-hour in the greenhouse. “Catch your breath,” Marvin Ward cautioned. She offered several projects for the session, two of them connected with a plant sale planned for June 7 to raise funds for the greenhouse. The children could choose to decorate flowerpots or envelopes to contain marigold seeds they saved last fall for the sale or to dig compost into a garden just outside the greenhouse.
Two boys volunteered for the compost brigade. Members of Ben Field’s family, who are farmers, donated a load of composted cow manure for the garden and Ben was eager to demonstrate his digging skills. He and Griffin Connor, who said his family grows mostly decorative plants, “flowers and some succulents and trees,” expertly wielded child-size shovels loosening the soil in the garden bed before incorporating the compost.
Other fourth-graders settled down on a picnic table to decorate pots with acrylic paint on paper-plate palettes prepared by Marvin Ward.
“Think of something garden-y or nature-y,” she suggested. “You are the artists. Remember, no video games.”
Jillian Oster carefully painted flowers on her pot. “I like working here. We come out to see the flowers and do art work,” she said.
When Marvin Ward asked for a volunteer to water the plants inside the greenhouse, Tessa Williams said, “I’ll do that.” She carefully filled a watering can from the rain barrel in the greenhouse.
“Water is an issue,” Marvin Ward acknowledged. A hose runs to the greenhouse from an old well in the woods but doesn’t always work well.
Marvin Ward said the two-day a week job as greenhouse teacher is perfect for her. “I fell in love with it.”
She received a bachelor’s degree in plant and soil science in the 1980s from UMass, and later took the master gardener course offered at the time through Cooperative Extension, also at UMass. Since then she has become an early childhood environmental educator, working for many years at Cushman Hill Children’s Center in Amherst and now part time in Leverett and part time at Northfield Mountain Environmental Center.
She said she tries to teach the Leverett children that plants are essential to all facets of life: food, clothing, shelter, medicine and decoration. In addition to growing food for the cafeteria, the children have grown flax from which linen is made and cotton for fiber, herbs for potpourri, corn to make cornhusk dolls and calendula for medicinal salves.
They are learning about soil and soil-less mixes, about the importance of compost, about the botany of plants — and the challenges of growing things. Growing cotton, for instance, wasn’t easy. The seeds need 90-degree temperatures to germinate, so Marvin Ward took the flats home to the warmth of her wood stove. Even so, only four of the 10 seeds germinated. However, the children still got to see the plants produce cotton bolls and cotton fiber.
She carefully prepares for each class. For instance, especially for the younger children, she made seed-sowing templates out of cut-up bright orange snow-fencing. The children simply plant one seed in each hole on the template in the bed.
Each class group decides what they want to grow. One group wanted to grow a “Jack-and-the-Beanstalk” bean. Another class this year wanted to grow edible flowers so they planted nasturtiums, a plant with bright flowers that can be added to salads. Marvin Ward also learned that bachelor’s buttons are edible as well as snapdragons.
“The kids like to play with them,” she said. “They are more of a garden toy than an edible flower.”
Most of the plants inside and outside the greenhouse are grown from seeds donated by Hadley Garden Center and the Greenfield Farmers Co-Op Exchange. Each year the Greenfield Garden Club, with members in Leverett, contributes $200.
“The kids are big into seed-saving,” Marvin Ward said. Last fall they harvested marigolds, pulled the flowers apart and dried the seeds in the sun. Now there are two large glass jars of seeds to be sold at the June 7 plant sale at the greenhouse.
In previous years the children grew plants to sell at the May event sponsored by the Leverett Historical Society, but the late spring delayed sowing so they decided to hold their own sale later. They have hanging baskets with nasturtiums, marigold seeds and decorative items like the flower pots and dragonfly ornaments made of clothes pins.
The greenhouse can get crowded — as well as hot — with half-a-dozen children at a time, so Marvin Ward got permission to create beds alongside the structure. Sixth-graders are dubbed “the school beautification team” and work hard on the gardens.
After digging narrow beds on the periphery, the children were given rolls of wooden edging to delineate the planting area. Compost is essential because “the soil is pretty yucky,” she said.
At one end of the bed, they unearthed turtle eggs and then protected them. “One day 11 baby turtles came wandering into our greenhouse,” Marvin Ward said.
One recent project was creating compost bins. Marvin Ward provided wooden pallets and sturdy yellow plastic twine and the children constructed the bins themselves. Meanwhile, the composted cow manure from the Field Farm is being dug into the beds.
Art projects are popular and if kids get bored they always have the option of decorating rocks they find in the nearby woods. They scrub the rocks with soapy water and a toothbrush and then paint them as decoration for the greenhouse beds. Sometimes they make them look like ladybugs.
“You have to make it work for all the kinds of kids,” Marvin Ward said. She always has an art project ready but also something that is more physical for those who need to let off steam. She even has a book basket with a revolving library. “Kids don’t always want to plant or weed,” she said.
Cheryl B. Wilson can be reached at email@example.com.