Vermont School Garden

A visit to a Vermont public school garden through the seasons.

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Peppers and Popcorn in Before the Frost

Sixth graders were on hand in the garden last week to harvest the peppers they helped plant last June.

Why are some of these peppers red?

Pepper harvest!

They came out on a crisp cold afternoon just before the first major frost transformed the colors of our garden from greens to browns. They poked around the plants, relentlessly picking every pepper hidden under leafy foliage.

Great conversations grew from the discovery of different types of peppers.

Some discussed the heat qualities of the different peppers they found. They wondered why some peppers had turned red while others were still green. (Peppers naturally turn red if left to ripen……Shhhhhh, don’t tell the sixth graders; let them discover this on their own.)

Proud pepper harvester.

I will take the peppers we harvested to Harlow Farm. They’ll keep well there in cold storage until we need them for snack or for the lunchtime salad bar this fall.

Our fourth grade classes took some time to think about the ideal environment for storing popcorn until it was ready for popping. Did you know that each popcorn kernel contains a single droplet of water inside a tiny circle of soft starch? The soft starch is surrounded by the kernel’s hard outer surface. As the kernel heats up, the water begins to expand. Around 212 degrees, the water turns into steam and changes the starch inside each kernel into a superhot gelatinous goop. The kernel continues to heat to about 347 degrees. The pressure inside the grain will reach 135 pounds per square inch before finally bursting the hull open! Popcorn needs between 13.5-14% moisture to pop. If the kernels are too dry or too wet, they won’t pop into the fluffy crisp kernels we know and love.

Popcorn Harvest.

A close-up look at an ear of popcorn.

A team of popcorn harvesters.

Tying popcorn for hanging.

The fourth graders chose from four different ‘ideal’ environments for storing their popcorn. We’ll see which storage environment wins out when we conclude this experiment sometime in January with a popcorn ‘pop-off.’



After School Snack

Harvesting kale in October.

I’ve been visiting with the After School Program this week. many of these same children participated in the Westminster Schools Summer Camp Program. They had lots of experience harvesting kale and turning it into appetizing snacks. We made kale chips again this week and offered them to the kids on the playground. It was amazing to see how quickly they disappeared! I’ve read studies claiming that a new food needs to be introduced at least 12 times before it is accepted positively. I’m thinking that these kale chips got less promotional time and they seem to be a success.It may have something to do with accompanying group enthusiasm.
Maya, an enthusiastic ‘Kinder-gardener”, was on hand yesterday to harvest some peppers for snack.

Maya’s pepper harvest.

We brought them around to the After School snackers with a tofu dip I billed as ‘yellow ranch.’ One of the Kindergarters tried one and said, “I say ‘Y-E-S.’ I told her, “Then you can have ‘M-O-R-E!'”

Peppers and dip for snack.

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Harvesting Butternut Squash and Potatoes

Finally, last Friday we had one of those signature Vermont autumn days. “When fall comes to New England, the sun slants in so fine, and the air’s so clear

Third grade butternut squash harvest.

you can almost hear the grapes grow on the vine…”

It was time to harvest our butternut squash. The second graders who planted this crop were now third graders. They were excited to discover the yellow butternut squash, once the weeds were cleared away. No matter how many times I observe the amount of kindness and cooperation children offer each other in the garden, I’m always impressed. This was a hard working third grade crew, moving wheelbarrows of weeds together, lending help wherever it was needed. They will work on cooking projects during the year using the squash. We’re so lucky to have cold storage space for our crops at the Harlow Farm.

We’re also very lucky to have farmer Paul Harlow, still supporting our Westminster Center School garden even as his daughter, Hannah, moves on to middle school.

Paul Harlow helping fifth graders dig potatoes.

He pitched right in with our potato harvest and he posed some challenging questions about how many pounds of potatoes we would find. Hmmmm…..about a pound per foot….two 75′ rows……..OK, fifth graders, get to work! By the way, Teams, what was the diameter of the largest potato harvested? The smallest? These potatoes will find their way into the school lunchroom and the classroom for various projects throughout the year.


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Dilly Beans: A School Tradition

Three days after I arrived home from Colorado I got an emergency phone call from the After School Coordinator. One of the students had picked a backpack full of beans from the garden. Could I help put them up as dilly beans if the After School Program provided all the needed supplies? Dilly beans are crisp pickled beans with just the right balance of salty and tart flavor and a hint of garlicky kosher pickle flavor. I had made dilly beans every autumn for years with my multi-age class, so I accepted the challenge. The next day, after school, I met with ten sixth graders who were eager to help put up the beans.

Measuring the correct amount of spices.

Some of these students had vague recollections of how to assemble the jars of beans for processing. They had been part of my dilly bean assembly line as first graders. Now, as sixth graders, they could read the recipe and multiply fractions of ingredients to double it. Fortunately we had the use of my old classroom. It boasts a fully equipped kitchen. The sixth graders got right to work, peeling garlic (daring each other to try some raw), washing and drying beans, and stuffing them into jars.

After School students assembling dilly beans.

The students measured brine ingredients and I ladled it into the filled jars when it was boiling hot. I tried a new technique for sterilizing jars, having just returned from the land of bottle sterilization. We filled each washed jar with water and put it in the microwave oven for 4 minutes. Jars and caps must be sterilized before filling. I brought the half dozen quarts home with me to process. Processing ensures a good seal. Once water is boiling in the processor, jars are submerged an inch below the surface. When boiling starts again, the jars should be processed for ten minutes. After they are taken out of the boiling water, caps will cool with a ‘pop,’ indicating a good seal. I did lose one jar in the processing. You can see the dill seeds swimming on the surface of the water bath.The jars will need two weeks in a cool dark place to achieve full flavor. We’ll be trying our dilly bean this coming week. Some of the photos in section were taken a few years ago and many of these students are off to middle school. I wanted to give a sense of what an enjoyable team project this can be for an entire class. The Westminster West School happened to be making dilly beans on the same day we made them this year. Congratulations, West West!

Here’s a copy of the dilly bean recipe:


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Student Harvesters In the Garden

As you can see, the garden is already an outdoor classroom for returning students. I accompanied a Kindergarten as they searched for tomatoes and peppers the other day.

Harvesting tomatoes together.

They made many other observations in the 45 minutes that  they spent walking around the garden.Their sense of wonder brings me back to the small miracles I miss all the time, just not being that close to the ground anymore! They were great at figuring out how many tomatoes they needed if they were harvesting twice as many ‘as they were old.’ After their harvesting was finished, they grazed on the abundant fall raspberries.

The peppers and tomatoes were given to our chef, Kim, to be used for making chili and for the salad bar. YUM!

Our chef, Kim, making chilli.

Kindergarten harvest.

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Back to the Garden September/October

Avery and her parents, Tom and Alie.

Avery’s mobile

Conversing with Jemima Puddleduck

I took a month away from our wonderful Vermont school garden so that I could help my daughter and her husband bring their first baby into the world. Avery Quinn Hopper, 7 lbs.2 oz. was born in Boulder, Co. just as school was starting in Westminster, Vt., on August 29, 2012.
While we were getting settled with our new arrival in Colorado, the weeds were settling in back in Vermont. I had left on August 23rd, thinking that the garden was is good shape for school to begin….apparently, NOT! The moist August/ September Vermont weather was just what weeds needed to have a ‘field day.’ I returned to a garden shrouded in a sea of waist high lacy vegetation. Where were the pristine mulched rows I had left? What had become of the new lettuce? It was buried beneath overachieving WEEDS. One of our teachers, Valerie, contacted me and gently suggested that she could help ‘uncover’ the garden on a Sunday when she was at school planning. Between her 2 hours and my 4, we unearthed half the garden, re-exposing the lettuce, tomatoes, peppers and marigolds to the waning rays of autumn sunlight. Many thanks, Valerie! We both went home looking like we’d spent an afternoon at a cruel spa, getting full-body cold mudpacks. It’s amazing how many heavy wet weeds can thrive in a garden in one short month!

Shade space in September. Watch out, Ben! The weeds are coming to getcha!