Growing Garden ‘Literacy’ at Highgate Library & Community Center

By Libby Weiland & Virginia Holiman

My Visit

“Show our guest what you’ve been growing,” says Ms. V, and within minutes of my arrival two young boys are guiding me around their yard–past the volunteer squash patch, through the archway starting to twine with scarlet runner beans, around the sunflowers just about to bloom, to the back pumpkin patch. I’m pulled away by other kids along the way to record the latest measurements of their cabbage plants, read notes from the ‘Wishing Tree,’ peek at baby peppers, learn about bugs and other garden discoveries, and of course to show me their mini water park (hose and baby pool). Besides their enthusiasm for getting wet on a hot summer day, what’s most clear is just how much these kids have taken ownership over this small oasis. And that was even before we dove into the excitement of spiralizing vegetables and experimenting with vinegar dips…

About the Garden Program

Virginia Holiman (known here as Ms. V.) manages this garden oasis, along with both youth and adult programming, in the backyard of a small library at the center of Highgate, Vermont–Highgate Library and Community Center. The garden program is designed to teach sustainable garden practices to children and families in the Highgate community, as Virginia puts it, “In hopes that they will develop a life-long love of gardening and an appreciation of fresh, locally grown foods.” 

This year the theme for the program is “Creepy Crawly Garden Club.” Beginning in early July children ages five and up are invited to the library three days per week for two and a half hours per day for six weeks. Children learn about “creepy crawlies” in the garden, do a bug count, transplant perennials and herbs to attract pollinators, add to and maintain compost bins, and cook together each day. The Highgate Library and Community Center is also a USDA free summer meals site, offering free lunch at the start of each program day. The children will be invited back in September to harvest as well as participate in a culminating celebration– a “BYOS” (Bring Your Own Senior) meal. Parents and guardians are also invited to join the program throughout the season. All participants receive a book of recipes at the end of the program.

Additionally, this year the library expanded adult garden programming to include six educational presentations around various issues related to gardening–beekeeping, pollinators, soil health, organic gardening, indigenous seeds/plants, and medicinal plants. 

What works

Virginia sees the library as a safe-haven for area children and a valuable resource to families. “We are located in a rural community with limited free programs for area children and families. By serving children, families, and our senior citizens we are able to provide free services to all community members.” Virginia facilitates conversations among families about gardening by “assigning homework” to participants in her club, having the kids bring home a question or something to share with their parents each night after the program.

As a result, she sees the participants taking their own initiative and practicing what she teaches. Highlights for Virginia include:

  • The time when one of her garden club kids decided to do research on his own regarding what to use to safely keep the bugs off his cabbage plant;
  • The instance when a grandmother took a photo of a bug found over the week-end and emailed it to the library because her grandkids wanted Ms. V. to see it but they didn’t want to kill it;
  • And the regular witnessing of the group’s devotion to “being in charge” of watering the town’s flowers in the park across the street.

Still Learning

After several years running the program Virginia and the library staff are continuing to learn what works, what doesn’t and how to improve. The adult programming was expanded this year with a diverse assortment of topics, to better connect with families. Seniors were invited to participate alongside kids at the garden club; however this year only one senior continued to participate in the full program. Next year the library will have more appropriate chairs for participating seniors as well as build an elevated raised bed to provide better access to gardening on-site.

Library Gardens: An Opportunity

Gardens located at public libraries are beginning to catch on as a great way to make connections with local families. According to Virginia, what makes for libraries ideal venues for garden programming:

  • Libraries bring a wide variety of patrons (ages, backgrounds, etc.) interested in furthering their experiences;
  • Built in story groups are available for garden programming;
  • The site is ideal for free lunches during the summer to connect families in need; and
  • Social media is already built in through the library to disseminate information.

When asked what elements make for successful summer library garden programs, Virginia shares:

  • Be sure to clarify any agreements made with other organizations (such as school-based summer programs, free meal programs, etc.) and get them in writing;
  • Work closely with the librarian;
  • Over plan activities for each program day;
  • Make sure children have access to an assortment of garden related reference books;
  • Just as in any garden–outdoor hose hook-up and easy access to bathroom are essential!

Want to learn more about library gardens? There are loads of inspiring examples out there and tips for getting started. Check out these resources:

Upcoming garden events at Highgate Library and Community Center: Sept. 10, Putting the Garden to Rest workshop by Ron Krupp; Sept. 12, Harvesting the Garden, BYOS (Bring your own Senior) luncheon; September 19, Annual Tractor Day at the Library, sharing garden snack ideas; and Oct. 1, Book Talk, Ron Krupp Woodchuck’s Guide to Gardening. More about Highgate Library and Community Center at: And check out photos from their garden program on Facebook.

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