Could a boy or girl really reach teenhood without ever having seen an uncleaned, uncut and uncooked beet?
Some eighth-graders who left the walls of their Monticello Middle School this week to visit an outdoor garden with Family and Consumer Science (FACS) class teacher Karen Smith said that, yes, to see a raw beet pulled from the earth was a new experience.
As seventh-graders last spring at the school, these students put several hands into planting the garden behind the building under the guidance of their life science teacher Jeff Bordwell. And, as if they needed another reason to wish for a speedy summer before the start of a new school year,
The students knew then that those vegetable seeds would likely grow into healthy produce for their use this fall during kitchen and food preparation days in Smith’s FACS classes.
Smith said that goods from the first harvest would be used in class recipes late this week. In addition to beets, the autumn bounty features carrots, kale, zucchini and acorn squash. “We hope to expand it,” she said of the school’s outdoor garden.
Smith plans to complement the schoolyard produce this fall with goods sold by vendors Thursdays at the weekly farmers market in Monticello.
The students will spice up their vegetable dishes with fresh herbs. In a school room next to where they sit at desks while Smith presents lessons on money management, healthy relationships and other course topics, last week the students re-planted an indoor garden including chervil and several types of peppers. “Of course, anything that’s hot and spicy is what they’re interested in, the hotter, the better,” Smith said. “We used to just grow basil and lettuce, cilantro and dill, more common things.”
This is the third September for the indoor garden, a project made possible through a Statewide Health Improvement Program grant in 2010. The red and yellow cherry tomatoes, the watercress, the Garnet Rose and black Simpson lettuces and the Yellow Wax, Purple Beauty, habanero, Marconi and pasilla Bajio chile peppers will grow beneath the light of 600-watt, high-pressure sodium bulbs that are timed to beam 12 to 14 hours daily. The soil contains black dirt, compost, manure and vermiculite that was mixed in a gardening class Smith took through Monticello Community Education.
Students can stand at the indoor garden while tracking or harvesting the plants as the topsoil level is about waist-high. The soil goes about 7 inches deep in two elevated wood frames, each measuring 6 feet long by 3.5 feet wide and set end-to-end, that were built by middle school custodian Larry Gantner. He has built similar indoor garden beds for culinary class use at Monticello High School.
The gardening projects in and out of the middle school building involve different students throughout the year. “It crosses grade levels. It crosses (academic) disciplines,” Smith said. “We’re also having area farmers (in October, or National Farm to School Month) come in to talk to our students about growing.”
Half of the school’s eighth-graders will hear those talks. They have Smith’s FACS class through the first semester into January. The remaining eighth-graders this fall are seeing Bordwell in his semester-long, introductory STEM class, which incorporates principles of science, technology, engineering and mathematics. STEM students will learn about engineering careers, Bordwell said, but primarily it is a “project-based course” where they will build bridges and other structures out of materials such as cardboard and wood. “It’s a brand-new type of course that we have here,” Bordwell said. “It will be a work in progress.”
During their last STEM sessions each week, Bordwell’s students will hear in class about what Smith’s students are learning from the gardens. When second semester begins mid-winter, the current FACS students will go to STEM class, and vice versa.
Either now or next spring, the school’s eighth-grade students will get to cook and eat foods that are new to them or at least prepared in a different way. As for many of these vegetables, “they’ve never tried them,” said Smith of her students. They can look forward to eating roasted beets, zucchini-carrot cupcakes and “kale chips.”
“They end up loving kale,” Smith says of her classes. “We’re getting a real feel for buying local, growing local, eating local.”
By Paul Rignell