WINDSOR – Students Brooke Borja and Boston Bowring faced off against a small garden box outside Windsor Elementary School on Thursday.
Borja, whose family owns a farm in Palermo, told Bowring what to do to remove weeds around strawberries and blueberries.
Bowring is less familiar with gardening, but he and Borja have been part of Maggie Blumenthal’s outdoor education class for almost two years.
On Thursday, they and other students in their fifth grade returned to the garden for the first time this year. Kim St. Onge, a fifth grade teacher at Windsor Elementary School, said it was like ‘they never left’.
Students of all grades at Windsor Elementary School learned from Blumenthal, who works with the school as part of the FoodCorps AmeriCorps program. She started the garden from scratch, but due to the coronavirus pandemic, this is the first year that students can experience the full potential of the garden.
Blumenthal taught students how to plant seeds and weed gardens. She also taught them what to keep animals out, including making a fence of sticks and a reflective line of old Xbox 360 discs to keep birds away from plants.
The students were assigned to a station and all were eager to get to work, according to Blumenthal.
“I do this on my farm,” Borja said after getting to work. “I pick the crops. I know a bit about it, but my mom mostly picks weeds.
Admitting that rural Maine and its alma mater, Unity College, are different from his native Connecticut, Blumenthal jumped right in helping students learn about plant ecosystems. Most of what she knows about plants goes through the FoodCorps.
Blumenthal said his favorite part of running the Windsor Garden was seeing the students enjoy nature.
“Even if they are not interested in planting things, they like to get their hands in the earth and connect with nature, so that they don’t abuse it and feel the need to protect it,” said Blumenthal. “There’s still a lag in where their food comes from, so I’m slowly passing them through the process.”
In fact, she started the garden with input from Michael Flynn, director of nutrition for Regional School Unit 12, as a way for the district to start growing its own food to include in school meals. Blumenthal said she focused on planting seeds of vegetables found in salads.
The garden has onions, beans, garlic, strawberries, blueberries, three kinds of tomatoes and herbs.
Blumenthal said it was too early to harvest which plants to use, but she hopes that by next year the district can start incorporating some of the plants into school meals.
Bowring said he loves to cook and is looking for a cucumber to use in mango salsa for his mother on Mother’s Day. He said he liked tending to the garden to see some food he could use later.
“I really love to cook,” Bowring said. “I like to dig things up and plant them in the garden.”
The students agreed that they like to be outside to learn, although one of them, Bruce Grosjean, said he loved gardening but “hates bugs”.
Blumenthal said she starts by teaching students the basics, such as growing bean sprouts. Using recycled lunch containers, students plant their seeds in the earth. When the plants grow large enough, Blumenthal will help the students transfer them to the garden or bring them home to their families.
Fifth-graders visit the garden and learn from Blumenthal as part of their science lesson. She calls it “sneaky teaching” because most students don’t realize they’re learning when they’re outside and having fun.
“I think it’s important to show them how their food thrives,” Blumenthal said. “Everyone can do it. You don’t need fancy tools. We use the lunch containers. It’s very tangible and teaches them math, science, even English and history by being outside. I think this is an incredible quality.
St. Onge said the outdoor classes aligned perfectly with the teaching curriculum.
“It’s about understanding natural resources,” she said.
St. Onge said that in the past, students were able to take a field trip to Tanglewood, a 2.5 mile loop trail near Lincolnville, but are unable to do so now in due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Thanks to the garden, says St. Onge, they are able to learn many of the same things.
When the pupils leave for summer vacation in mid-June, Blumenthal will stay on to take care of the garden. Her goal – and what she wanted to start last year, but couldn’t due to the coronavirus pandemic – is to create a community garden.
Blumenthal said some families have already received early herbs from the garden.
“I would like to have a stewardship where people could come every week and maintain the garden,” she said.
Windsor Elementary School principal Heather Wilson said the school has big plans for the garden.
With the help of the community, a gazebo and concrete slabs are planned to transform the area into an outdoor classroom. Today, students sit on tree stumps as they learn.
“Kids are up to their best interests,” Wilson said. “As they get older, and if you don’t push them with their interests, it can go away. We want to capture it and keep their interest with it. “
Waterville prepares students for summer ‘camps’