By Jillian Varin, Summer Garden Educator
Have you ever tasted lettuce juice before? Did you know that evergreen needles can be used to make tea, that a premature strawberry plant looks like a scrawny, lifeless little squid, or that cocoa bean shells can be used as mulch in gardens to keep weeds away?
Prior to beginning my work for the Orchard Elementary School gardens this summer, the only gardening tools whose existence I was aware of were the watering can and the shovel. The term “gardening” itself meant nothing more to me than poking holes in the ground, placing seeds in them, and watching them grow. Having helped plan out and build up the gardens on the Orchard School grounds for the current growing season has not only introduced me to numerous concepts concerning how to grow a successful garden, but through the process I have also learned so much about the importance of health as it relates to the production of fresh, local food.
As part of its dynamic mission of connecting the community with understanding mindful food choices and the transition of healthful food from the garden to the dinner table, Orchard School is immersing children in daily garden activities during the School’s Out program at Orchard Elementary School. Since mid-June, gardener Andrew Wolf and I have been working a few mornings a week with small groups of children to help connect them with and educate them about the food project that is currently underway on their school grounds. Cooking, doing art projects, taste-testing plants, conducting lessons on gardening, and creating a worm farm are among the activities that we have completed to date.
One of the first projects that we decided to organize was making salads with the mature lettuce in our gardens. I recall beginning the morning by describing what we would be doing for the day to our small group. Immediately one of the girls questioned the project, exclaiming, “We are going to make a salad out of just lettuce?” I wasn’t sure how to respond, knowing that the so-called “salad” we were about to build would simply consist of one type of plant. Of course I tried to respond enthusiastically, stating that we would first pick the lettuce, then clean and dry it, break it up, and drizzle the homemade dressing I had made using herbs from our garden onto it. The little girl’s skepticism did not wane until we actually immersed ourselves in the project. As It turns out, children absolutely love using salad spinners, as well as making lettuce juice by using a juicing device. When our allotted time with the group of children had run out that morning, Andrew and I were pleased to hear them asking if they could use the refrigerator to save some of their salad and lettuce juice for lunch.
Another one of my favorite projects this summer was producing tea using various types of plants growing around the school property’s diverse landscapes. Both the children and I were impressed and amazed to see Andrew walk over to the forest edge and pick needles from a pine tree branch to use to produce a batch of tea. Among other ingredients the children chose to use when concocting tea recipes were squash flowers, raspberry leaves, and mint.
I’d have to say that watching children having fun applying their creativity to our gardening projects is certainly one of the most rewarding aspects of my job. It is my greatest pleasure to watch the children learn about the connection between food and health through their own personal interactions with the gardens, instead of simply through listening to traditional lectures. I believe that it is through this type of exposure to the concept of how nutrition impacts overall well-being that future generations will learn to adopt healthy lifestyles and ultimately reverse the current trend seen in America’s health reports today.
The dozen gardens are sponsored by a partnership with South Burlington Nutritional Services, Common Roots and the dynamic School’s Out program. The summer garden work with children is paid for by the two semi-annual Tag Sales held at Orchard School twice each year. The next sale is October 21st and 22nd.