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Eat your greens: (l-r) Hannah Tremblay and Sierra Hipwell weed a lettuce patch at Goff Organic Garden.

Photo: Kathryn Geurin

Growing Gardeners

The Goff Middle School Garden Club sows the seed of hands-on education

By Kathryn Geurin

Anyone who says children don’t like vegetables hasn’t been to the organic garden at Goff Middle School. For if they had, they would have found kids bustling through rows of swiss chard and eggplants with the eagerness of the quintet unleashed in Willy Wonka’s candy wonderland. The Goff Organic Garden holds its own magic—the magic of a place where an eleven-year-old spouts mouthwatering recipes for stuffed Patty Pan squash. A place where her eighth-grade cohort gently parts the leaves on a tall stalk to reveal, with pride, the early buds of brussels sprouts, adding patiently, “They won’t be ready until fall.”

The garden was founded in 2003 with a fourfold mission: to involve students in community service, to raise their awareness of environmental issues, to encourage healthy eating habits, and to promote hands-on learning. Funded by an array of grants and donations, the half-acre garden features 11 raised-bed growing areas, an in-ground water supply, and a storage barn with solar panels to power any required electronics.

Last year, sixth-grade math teacher Nancy Scott took over the garden club from the former assistant principal, founder and caretaker, after he left the district. Scott had been volunteering in the garden for years, and taking over the club was a natural progression. “I’ve been gardening for over 30 years,” says Scott, whose T-shirt is soaked from the hose her students are using to cool off on an oppressively hot summer morning. “I have a big garden at home, and I’ve been helping out here since I started with the district. It’s a great group of kids, and they’re really becoming experts.”

The garden club runs throughout the school year and during the summer, managing all the responsibilities, start to finish, of the ample organic harvest. “We work year-round, except in the winter,” says Sierra Hipwell, an eighth-grader who has been a member of the garden club since she started at Goff two years ago. “After school we’re here two days a week, three days a week in the summer. Fall is harvest, spring is planting.”

The students learn the ins and outs of organic gardening, from principles of crop rotation and diversity to composting and organic pest control methods. They’ve become expert tour guides over the summer, having led numerous groups of elementary schoolers through the garden’s extensive plantings. They can identify the early sprouts of leaf lettuces, an array of summer and winter squash, herbs, ornamental flowers, and an assortment of potato varieties from their leaves and flowers. The students truly are becoming expert gardeners, pointing out nutritional needs of different vegetable families, planting and harvest times, even the dreaded signs of Japanese beetles in raspberry bushes—and how to eradicate them.

“Over here we have sage,” indicates sixth-grader Hannah Tremblay, brushing her red curls from her forehead as she bends over the herb beds. “If you just rub it between your fingers very lightly, very lightly . . . as light as you can, and then smell. Mmmm, yes, that’s sage.” She skims her herb-scented hand over the plantings. “That’s kale, and swiss chard. There’s our basil, and we have rosemary. You know,” she chuckles, “before I started working on the garden I didn’t even know that such a thing as kale existed.”

Now the students know not only about the existence of vegetable varieties, but ways to prepare them, creating varied menus from the local harvest. “Mrs. Scott, she cooks everything for us. Just yesterday she cooked some chocolate zucchini bread,” says Hipwell. “Or she’ll bring her portable stove, one time she cooked potatoes for us, right here. She shows us different ways to prepare everything.” In the fall, some of the produce—garlic, onions and potatoes—will sizzle on the stoves of the school’s sixth-grade cooking classes.

On Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday mornings during the summer the students sell their produce at a small market set up under a lean-to roof beside the barn. In addition to harvesting and cleaning the vegetables, the kids get practical experience with packaging and weighing, calculating costs and making change. Unlike most markets, here the proprietors will introduce their vegetables. “This is squashzilla,” they begin, proudly holding up favorites and noshing fresh cantaloupe among shouts of, “Squashie, Squasho, Diego and The J.” Sadly, the Potato family has already been sold.

The garden club also holds a single large market at the school’s main entrance in the beginning of October. School staff, neighbors and parents get to stock up on organic produce for family dinners, while supporting the rare educational opportunity. Profits from the markets each year generate the revenue to buy seeds, fertilizer, tools and supplies for the next year’s garden. The fall market alone typically brings the club around $1,000, but the students are eager for a better turnout during the summer. “The only better thing that could happen for the garden,” says Tremblay, “is just a little bit more customers. Then it would be really amazing.”

Any produce that hasn’t sold at the end of the week is packaged and donated to local food pantries, an effort which amounts to over a ton of fresh, local, organic produce being donated every year. This year, Scott invited the neighboring Methodist church to partner with the garden club, offering up flower and vegetable beds in exchange for occasional “garden sitting services.”

We’re trying to do a lot of different things here,” says Scott. “It’s community service project, it’s helping people that need some food. It’s helping teach about where your food comes from, and raising the students’ environmental aware ness, encouraging them to make responsible, sustainable choices.”

Hipwell’s twin brother Stephen cleans and bundles garlic on a picnic table while a few of his fellow gardeners snap into fresh pole beans. The kids begin to swarm around their teacher, asking what more can be done. “Are there more potatoes to pick?” Scott has to plead them to take it easy. It’s hot, and they’ve already cleared out the carrot beds this morning.

“It’s a lot of work, but it’s worth it,” says Hipwell. “You get a good feeling from helping the community, from donating, and there really is a lot to learn here.”

Here in the Goff Organic Garden, no one can claim kids don’t like vegetables, as Tremblay throws her hands in the air, proclaiming, “And you get to bring veggies home! It’s so much fun!”

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TABLE SCRAPS

The Mill on Round Lake (2121 Route 9, Round Lake) has unveiled its newly renovated outdoor bar and fire pit, and if that’s not enough to persuade you to spend some al fresco hours here, there’s also a new bocce ball court. The indoor portion also has seen improvement, with the addition of another dining room, fireplace, more restrooms, and an expanded warm-weather menu soon to come. Call 899-5253 for more info. . . . Remember to pass your scraps to Metroland.



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