Friday, September 26, 2014

Manchester reaps the fruits and veggies of its laborers - By Elizabeth Richards

Classes involved in Manchester Gardens for Learning have been working hard this month to gather the bounty grown in their school gardens. This year’s harvest includes tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, carrots, melons and some good sized pumpkins, as well as garlic, herbs and a variety of greens.
The produce is used in the school cafeteria, and any surplus is given to the local food pantry, according to master gardener Pam Lanz, the school’s retired guidance counselor who remains very active as a volunteer with the gardening program. 

Sabrina Nickerson, one of the teachers involved in the program, said that students help harvest the vegetables, as well as assist with putting the beds to sleep for the winter, planning winter crops for the hoop-house, and in February, choosing and starting seeds for the 2015 gardens.

Gardening has been an element at Manchester School since the school’s renovation in 1998/99, according to Lanz. At that time, she was asked to plant some flowers and bulbs to add to the landscaping. In 2009 the Manchester Gardens for Learning committee was formed, and they decided to try planting some vegetables.

Inspired by a school in Gorham, said Lanz, the group started small. Three classroom teachers were interested in participating, so three raised beds were built. In 2011, the group received a grant to build a hoop house to extend the growing season, providing more food for more of the school year. The hoop house at Manchester was the first commercial hoop house built by David Tidwell at Eden House, and he has been a source of ongoing support, said Lanz. For the past two years, greens grown in the hoop house have survived bitter Maine winter weather and been served in the cafeteria.

The goals of the gardening program were originally tied into addressing the obesity epidemic, Lanz said. The group wanted the children to understand where food comes from, and what makes food healthy. The main goal was to grow food so it could be used in the school cafeteria. The adults try to direct students towards that goal when choosing seeds to plant. “We’re getting better at what we grow, and how much we grow,” said Lanz.

This year the group has been tracking how many pounds are harvested, giving those numbers to food service so they can see how much money they are saving by using school grown produce.

An added bonus, said Lanz, is that children are also gaining hands on learning in many subjects, which research has shown leads to better academic achievement. “You can incorporate most school subjects into gardening, particularly math and science,” said Lanz.

The Manchester Gardens for Learning program has support from a core group of staff and parents who help maintain the gardens. Lanz added that Bill Hansen, Director of Facilities for RSU 14, has also been supportive in many ways, such as setting up grow lights and allowing for the added electricity costs. “That’s really critical if you’re going to have a structure like that on school property,” said Lanz.

In addition to the hands-on gardening tasks, students have lessons in the classroom, learning about topics like pollination, seed starting, sprouting and sampling sprouts. Lanz said they try to do these lessons during the colder months, when it’s harder to get outside. 

Working in the garden often allows unexpected real life lessons, such as when the students found a hornworm and a rich discussion arose, said Lanz. “It’s exploring, for many of them, something they are not that familiar with,” she said. 

Future goals include starting a compost pile and fencing the garden to ward off potential pest or theft issues. The school has been fortunate to date, not having had to deal with any major issues in the garden, said Lanz. “We’re trying to grow things more so they are ready when the kids are there,” Lanz added.
Manchester Gardens for Learning will hold a community open house as part of School Garden Open House Day on Saturday, September 27th, from 10 a.m. to 12 p.m. They will offer a variety of activities and tours of the garden.

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