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A Good Year In the Garden Thetford’s School Garden Celebrates The Seasons

Wednesday, July 24, 2013
Cody McKinstry, 5, of Thetford, wrinkled his nose at the fresh garden roll-ups with lemon tamari dipping sauce. “I like that, though!” the incoming kindergartner exclaimed, pointing to the nasturtium pesto he piled on Wheat Thins.  

McKinstry was one of more than two dozen people who gathered last Wednesday morning for Thetford Elementary’s 5th annual School Garden Cooking (and eating) Party, a community celebration of the gardens and the hard work that yielded the vegetal bounty.

At 9 a.m., as families trickled in, Cat Buxton, the garden coordinator, ushered students around 13 small raised beds at the back of the building, demonstrating how to hold scissors and properly harvest the vegetables they’d need: chives, basil and nasturtiums, as well as carrots and lettuce.

Under the supervision of Buxton, volunteer coordinator Kendra Waterbury and a slew of local volunteers, the gardens have flourished, resulting in a lush assortment of greenery from rows of corn and sprawling squash plants to morning glories and cranberries.

Once all the ingredients were gathered, the group took advantage of the shade offered by two small tents, as children played on the grass and adults sipped water flavored with lemon, basil, thyme and calendula.

Around the gardens, Buxton is clearly in her element, enthusiastically expounding on the organic methods used to grow the plants, and holding the attention of students during food preparation.

Benjamin Perron, 8, moved to Thetford just recently with his family, but made himself right at home, shredding carrots in preparation for his first taste of rice paper-wrapped fresh vegetables and rice.

Beside him on the table, a paper bowl held scarlet and yellow nasturtium flowers ready for sampling, and to be added, along with basil, chives and sunflower seeds, as the key ingredient in the Garden Confetti Pesto.

Kathy Hatch, a speech and language teacher at the elementary school, chopped cucumbers, as other volunteers, teachers, parents and community members mingled and helped prepare the dishes. “The event incorporates kids in summer school, but we also invite everyone from the community,” she explained. “There’s a place in the garden for everyone.”

School nurse Joette Hayashigawa spearheaded the garden project in 2007. Cat Buxton assumed responsibility for the gardens the following year, as part of her role as education program coordinator at Cedar Circle Farm in East Thetford.

The garden was incorporated into school curricula, though at first, Buxton said, mobilizing volunteers and making the gardens sustainable was “like pulling teeth.”

But gradually the program gained momentum. In 2010, the school built six new beds and an outdoor reading room adjacent to the library. In subsequent years, the garden crew has added peach and other fruit trees, cranberries and blueberries, as well as a composting system that recycles all food waste throughout the school year, creating what Buxton termed a “complete food cycle.”

This spring, a raspberry patch was added, sewn with cover crops until raspberries are planted later in the season.

“The gardens used to be just grant- and donation-funded,” Buxton said. “Then we realized it had become such an integral part of the school.” Two years ago, she said, the gardens were included in the school budget. This year the school spent almost $1,000, and tries to alleviate the cost through fund-raising and grants.

Now, the gardens have their own niche in Thetford Elementary and every class contributes. Crossroad Farm in Fairlee, E.C. Brown’s Nursery in Thetford and Cedar Circle Farm donate most of the seeds and seedlings that are started indoors by the kindergarteners and first- and second-graders, and transplanted outside when the ground thaws.

The younger grades are the primary caretakers of themed gardens. Corn, beans and squash, “the three sisters,” grow side by side in one. A second plot holds pollinators, planted to attract bees and other beneficial insects. Three beds make up a rainbow-sensory garden, each holding two colors of the rainbow, as well as various textures and smells. Other plots supply the cafeteria with fresh ingredients well into the fall.

While most of the planting and harvesting responsibilities end after second grade, involvement in the garden continues. The third-graders, Buxton said, comprise the “fruit and berry committee.” Fourth-graders help with composting.

Owen Dybvig, 12, of Thetford, pointed out the extensive composting system, four large wood boxes that students can open using a simple pulley system. Last year, in fifth grade, his class measured and graphed the temperature of the decomposing matter over the course of the school year. In sixth grade, he and his classmates will take turns “turning” the compost, moving it from box to box as it decomposes.

“Whenever we have the opportunity, we pull the kids out here,” Buxton said. “They just love it.”

When the school empties during summer vacation, Waterbury, the volunteer coordinator, oversees garden care. Every Wednesday morning, volunteers, typically students and parents, meet to water, weed and harvest whatever’s ripe. Waterbury also works in the school kitchen throughout year with Sheila Piper, pickling, dehydrating and freezing the produce in preparation for the school year.

Usually, she said, the fresh dishes — garden soup, pesto, crispy kale — are well-received. “If the kids plant it and watch it grow, they’ll eat it. But if you throw something at them from the grocery store, it’s a lot less likely they’ll be willing to try it.”

The writer can be reached at .

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