Summertime with Gardens For Learning

By Carolina Lukac, Garden Education Specialist

Allison harvesting kale and marigoldsAs the Gardens for Learning Statewide Coordinator, I have had the honor of visiting program sites across Vermont and witnessing how this grant program is brought to life. This year VCGN offered grant awards to nine sites running summer programs with hands-on gardening, cooking and nutrition activities for children. Each Gardens for Learning site personalizes their summer program with their own rhythm and flavors. Here I share a few anecdotes from my site visits…

I was pleasantly surprised to see most sites start the day with a freshly baked breakfast treat to nourish children arriving to camp without food in their tummies. When I arrived at the St Johnsbury School Catamount Sprouts site, I found Courtney in the kitchen baking zucchini muffins. Breakfast was served buffet style and included a nutritious array of spreads for those muffins (butter, rhubarb jam, peanut butter) and a fruit and yogurt smoothie that Lianne described as “a magical recipe with all the leftover fruit in the refrigerator.” At the Highgate Housing site in Barre I observed children playing with scone dough as if it was play dough, melting all the butter in their warm hands and squeezing the blueberries in the process. And yet, when those blueberry scones came out of the oven, they were perfect. It was a sweet reminder of trusting in the process of involving children in hands-on cooking.

At the Family Center of Washington County in Montpelier I was reminded about the importance of playtime and imagination in educational gardens. Deidre had purchased large bamboo teepee structures with a Gardener’s Supply gift card that all sites received as part of their grant awards. Those teepees were turned into charming fairy houses decorated with ribbons and beads. As I watched a group of preschool-aged boys run around the garden and gather squash bugs to mix them into mud pies, I appreciated the features that this site has included to allow for imaginative play in the garden.

I have always celebrated gardens as the inspiration for art projects and I was thrilled to see how many garden-inspired crafts were created by Erica at Green Acres in Barre. We began the morning with a garden parade around the housing site, carrying huge pieces of cardboard boxes cut out in a variety of vegetable shapes. Later on we went for a nature walk to harvest sumac leaves that were going to be used to make imprints with natural dyes on aprons. And drying on a table I saw the previous week’s garden art project: stepping stones made by pouring cement into pie molds and using broken plates to create lovely mosaics.

The Richford NOTCH Playground site has a bountiful garden that provided a continuous supply of raw snacks during the three hours I visited. Annette facilitated a cooking activity to make hummus that was then spread onto a leaf of lettuce and garnished with dill, chives, thyme and mint from the garden. A young boy was inspired to harvest green beans, purple carrots, radishes, Johnny Jump ups and snow peas to add to the lettuce wraps. He meticulously cut up the harvest, placed each item in a cup and invited other children to feast on garden snacks.

Last week children made zucchini muffins, this week they have another huge zucchini to cook with!Neale, the Site Coordinator at the Boys and Girls Club of Burlington program site, faces the challenge of having to walk four blocks with a group of children to reach their two garden beds at the Riverside Neighborhood Garden. On the afternoon I visited, the children spent a short time at the garden identifying vegetables beneath a jungle of weeds. Neale mentioned how it felt as though she spent more time rounding up the children from their other camp activities and walking to the garden, than actually engaging in gardening activities like weeding. On the walk back to the Club we identified a tart cherry tree on the sidewalk with limbs weighed down by so many ripe cherries. We stopped and ate cherries by the handful until our tongues turned red. As we continued walking I contemplated whether it was more important for Neale to spend time weeding a garden or eating cherries with the children. One of the goals of the Gardens for Learning program is to nurture children’s relationship with food and with the agricultural landscape of Vermont. For these children, I believe that foraging tart cherries on a city sidewalk was perhaps the most meaningful activity of the day.

Also in Burlington, I visited Franklin Square where Khadija established three garden beds for this site’s first year participating in Gardens for Learning. Those three beds are the best maintained and most abundantly growing gardens in the housing site community garden. I have another site visit scheduled for this weekend and I have heard that they are preparing a Somalian-themed feast to celebrate the last weekend of their summer program.

I spent most of my visit at Mt Anthony Union Middle School in Bennington cooking kale and goat cheese empanadas. Helen and Stephen did a remarkable job of overseeing rowdy teenagers in a community kitchen with small groups working in their own cooking stations. Stephen talked about the nutrient density of kale, Helen reminded teenagers that the goat cheese came from the farm they visited last week, and the guest visitor (a teenager’s mother) taught everyone how to roll out the dough. I joined a cooking team of three adolescent boys, one of whom told me that he wanted to be a soccer player or a chef when he grows up. I have no doubt that spending four weeks at garden camp will imprint food memories in this adolescent’s mind and perhaps even influence his career choices.

During one site visit I was fortunate to tag along on a field trip to a farm owned by Meadow, the Site Coordinator for the Tinmouth Elementary School program site. The guided walk included feeding tree branches to goats and crab apples to pigs, harvesting carrots for a snack, munching on the last raspberries of the season, and cooling off by dipping our toes in a pond. As a farmer, Meadow has her hands full during summer months with CSA deliveries and farmer’s markets. However, she has been leading a Gardens for Learning summer program during the past 5 years. I honor her and the other Site Coordinators and Program Assistants leading Gardens for Learning summer programs by saying – “Thank you for all that you do to connect children with healthy food in gardens and kitchens throughout the summer. You bring this grant program to life!

Gardens For Learning is a program of the Vermont Community Garden Network, made possible with generous support from the O.P. and W.E. Edwards Foundation.

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