Vermont School Garden

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

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Giving Thanks

Our Westminster Schools Thanksgiving Feast has, over the years, grown to colossal proportions. This year  we were expecting 400 to 600 attendees. I was in charge of the butternut squash (200 cups, please.) Our generous community farmers and friends at the Kurn Hattin School donated the milk, potatoes, butter and squash for these minions. Many thanks to them!

A powerful group of TEAM parents, led by the intrepid Molly Banik, provided the expertise, energy and initiative to get the monstrous undertaking off the ground.

Cheryl Rounds, former staff member and great grandma, and Molly Banik, feast coordinator and parent.

The sixth graders were on hand early in the morning for lessons on how to serve. Both the cavernous gymnasium and the dining hall were set up restaurant style with white table cloths and burgundy napkins. ‘Feasters’ would eat with their families and other families at tables of eight. Our principal, Steve Tullar, was on hand to welcome parents to the tables. Centerpieces were made by students and our talented Art teacher, Colleen Grout. Songs were sung by all 600 of us, under the direction of  Ashley Pane our Music teacher.

Setting up for the “Feast.”

Before 8 a.m., parents and students were at the ready, peeling an extra 50 lbs. of potatoes. (Our neighboring school, Kurn Hattin, helped with     cooking support… thankful that they’re just down the road!) Peter Terrell, our custodian, drove the huge pot of peeled potatoes, sloshing in icy water  to the Kurn Hattin School to be cooked. We welcomed someof their students and staff to the feast. Each Westminster student was responsible for providing a specific family contribution, such as bread or salad.

Kim Kinney, our chef, commandeered our own kitchen staff while stirring the enormous pot of turkey gravy. At the last minute someone donated 10 whole turkeys!! As you can see the spirit of  “giving” was the most important part of “giving thanks” this year at our school.

Thanksgiving buffet.

Ending  our feast, leftovers were made into dinners for hungry families. Any other leftovers were taken to the Bellows Falls Stone Church soup kitchen. (Mondays happen to be the days that they’re open for business.)

…………so thankful for the community energy that flows through this school!


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Pre Thanks

The After School class used local apples to make a healthy version of apple crisp last week. The older students quadrupled the recipe (no help with fractions; sorry kids!) while the younger ones learned apple peeling and coring skills. Those tricky older students joined forces to help each other multiply.

Multiplying ingredients by 4.

Math work in cooking.

They were done faster than you can say, “light the oven.” Next they mixed the dry ingredients together while the youngers continued to unravel the mysteries of the peeler. One student said, “I like my apples like they are, raw. Can’t we just eat them now?” “Of course!”

By the way, some children as well as adults have a hard time time managing the texture of cooked apples with skins on them because they aren’t used to the sensation. New food textures need promotional time just as  new food tastes do.

Assembling the apple crisp

After a little time to play outdoors while the apple crisp cooled, there were some happy chefs to gobble down one pan of apple crisp. The other pan went into the freezer, our contribution to the all school Thanksgiving Feast on the following Monday. The recipe for this low sugar apple crisp is just below this post. Enjoy!

When I got to school last Monday, to help set up for the Thanksgiving Feast, I saw students heading out to the garden. I had to walk out to see what they were up to.

Journey North Science experiment Gr. 3.

The 3rd grade was out in full force digging up the frozen earth to plant tulip bulbs.

measuring depth together

They explained that when they could see the bulbs sprouting up from the ground, they would know it was spring. I showed them the garlic bed that the After School students had planted the week before. Now they know about two bulbs that need to winter over before flowering. In pairs, these students and their teacher were breaking up the frozen earth and measuring to the exact 1/8th of an inch, the depth of their holes. Each has a science journal to record the procedure followed. Students were buzzing with interesting questions and hypotheses.

Third graders and their teacher, Atasi Das.

I think they’ll compare their data with other participating schools across the U.S.A.
Healthy Apple Crisp

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Planting a Crop in November? Yes; Garlic!

Claudia McCarthy is the former Westminster Center School parent I think of when it’s time to plant garlic. I learned about this time honored planting tradition from her. I hope I haven’t made too many mistakes. (It’s been a few years since her sons were part of our garden program. They’re in college and beyond now.) Claudia and her husband, Ian Conway, hosted great garlic festivals at their home every fall. The price of admission was a garlic dish. I remember that garlic ice cream was a big hit one year.

When Claudia came to plant garlic with my class, she requested 25 gallons of composted horse manure. There is less seed (weed) potential in horse manure; I’ve learned since then that rabbit is the optimal manure for growing garlic… seed at all in pellet fed rabbit poop. There are plenty of horse owners in our area who LOVE to have someone cart away a few bags of old horse manure.

Claudia would bring five or six students at a time out to the garlic bed site. The first group would turn over the soil with pitchforks and shovels.

The next group would scatter the manure over a 20 x 4 foot bed. After the manure was turned into the soil, the children made a “chocolate cake’ out of the bed, building up the sides and making a little plateau on the top.  Here are some of my After School Program students doing the same thing a few days ago:

Turning composted horse manure under.

What is a garlic clove? It’s one section of the bulb of garlic that you buy from the market. Bulbs must be separated and each clove is planted individually, 6 inches from the others. We leave ours uncovered in the earth until all the cloves are planted so we don’t miss any spaces.

Planting cloves.

Plant cloves six inches apart.

Get your garlic for planting from someone who has a few bulbs left over from their own successful garlic crop OR find a commercial source.

Once the cloves are planted and covered with soil, a thin layer of mulch straw (not hay; there are fewer seeds in straw) is scattered on the “chocolate plateau cake.” I know our bed doesn’t begin to look like Claudia’s did many years ago, but we’re hoping for a good crop next July.

After straw mulch.

“Chocolate cake plateau,” after planting.

Garlic is one of those bulb crops that needs to overwinter. It may begin to show a few green shoots before the snow flies. I hope not. It’s better off snoozing for a while under the snow and then sprouting in the spring. When it first sends curly flower buds (scapes) into the air, cut them off and make your first pesto with them and a little olive oil! This pruning will give energy back to the growing bulbs. The bulbs will be ready to harvest in mid-July. I hope these same children will harvest them with me during Westminster Summer Camp….more about garlic harvest next July!

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Putting the Garden to Bed for the Winter

I don’t know who thought of the phrase, “putting the garden to bed,” but for me it conjures up memories of settling in with my class, or my own small children for the long dark winter months, reading lots of great fairytale picture books and knowing that our garden is sleeping safely under a deep blanket of Vermont snow. It’s a time for completing the traditions of the growing cycle and reflecting back on the great times we’ve had in this garden through the seasons.

First graders under the morning glory arbor in October.

I thought a few photos of our arbor in summer and after the first frost would help to illustrate how a garden can encourage children to consider change over time.

Arbor, post frost.



Is it time to mourn the memories of brilliant marigolds or time to accept their inevitable decay and rebirth?

Cleaning up the marigold row.

First grade friends.

Students from Kindergarten to fifth grade participated in  clearing dead vines and tough root systems. They piled wheelbarrows high with decaying matter for our compost pile. Third graders and Kindergartners worked and played together on this warm fall “Garden to Bed Day.”

Multi-grade teamwork.

Good-bye sunflowers!

Earlier in the morning, I cut back half of the raspberries. The students carted them off to the compost pile. We’ll see if that side yields a better crop next June.

Happiness is dancing on a compost pile!

Clearing raspberry canes.

The great surprise at the end of their workday was the arrival of our local organic farmer Paul Harlow and his tractor tiller. The tiller is an impressive piece of machinery,  especially if you’re 3 feet tall. One Kindergartner waxed poetic at the sight of the gleaming disks. “Hey, those look like the cymbals we play in Music class!” Another pointed to the letters on the side of the tractor and carefully spelled aloud the word, ” KUBOTA.” Paul kindly fielded questions from his rapt young audience. Watching the earth  being turned over in preparation for winter is a time honored ritual in this town with its deep agricultural history.

Tilling the garden after clean-up.

Guest speaker, garden classroom.

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Back In Time: Pumpkin Work with First Graders

Last October, the first graders came out to the garden to harvest the pumpkins they had planted as Kindergarteners last June.

Harvesting pumpkins as first graders, having palanted them as Kindergarteners.

They were very serious about their job.

First Grade pumpkin harvesters.

You can see that teamwork is an assumed responsibility even among the youngest students. After they harvested their pumpkins, they had  fun discovering other late growing yummy surprises in our garden.

Happy to find a giant zucchini!

Fall raspberries were a great reward after garden work in October.

Raspberry rewards.

In the classroom, first graders worked in pairs to measure and record observations about them. They predicted how many seeds would be found inside the pumpkins and what else they might find when the pumpkins were cut open. They overcame any squeamishness as they separated pumpkin seeds from pulp!

Scraping seeds from pie pumpkins.

Seed estimation.

I helped the first graders bake their pumpkins in a preheated 350 degree oven. We cut the pumpkins in half and put them upside down on a foil lined cookie sheet with about 1/4 inch of water. (This allows the pumpkin to steam under its own shell.) When the shell is tender to the touch, you can pull the cookie sheets out of the oven. Allow time for cooling before scraping the pumpkin out. You can mash this cooked pumpkin easily and use it for cooking in place of canned pumpkin. We put a lot of ours into freezer bags and froze it  for cooking projects later in the winter. Winter cooking will be a great way to reinforce our memories of pumpkin harvest day.
Pumpkin observations grade 1
Best Ever Pumpkin Muffin Recipe

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Kale Harvesting with Second Graders

Ooops! The long rows of blue-green kale were beginning to turn yellow.

Frosted kale can be trimmed and harvested from the bottom leaves to the top ones.

We found out that although kale will continue to produce even after the snow falls, it needs to be continually harvested (from the bottom up) in October/November.

Great kale, still ready to harvest in late October.

The second graders came out to trim back the kale they had planted last spring, composting the unusable leaves on the ground and picking the crisp green ones for a kale party after the Halloween parade.

Please take my picture with the kale!

Their teacher, Ian Levy, is a big fan of kale. His enthusiasm spills over into the developing tastes of his young students. They baked kale chips and kale soup together as a class and served them to their parents. I’ll get Ian’s recipes and include them in the next entry.
Our chef, Kim Kinney, is using the kale we harvest for her in yummy lunchtime salads.

Kale salad with carrots and craisins.

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Mmmm, Yummy Applesauce!

Nothing is more eagerly anticipated in late August early September in Vermont than apple season!

Apple picking at CVO, Westminster.

There are so many varieties to choose from and the orchard is a perfect outdoor school classroom. When I was a classroom teacher, there were many songs to share with our class about apples. The chorus of one of them (pages long, with unending verses) went: “Hey Ho you feel so fine lookin’ out across the orchard in the bright sunshine. Hey Ho, you feel so free, standin’ at the top of an apple tree!”

The Kindergarten and the After School chefs made applesauce this October. There are two schools of thought about how to prepare it. One involves peeling, coring and dicing the apples, so that once they’re boiled in a bit of water, they turn to mush and are ready to eat or to pack away in freezer bags. The other (my preferred method) is just to cut the apples into quarters and cut the quarters in half. Put them in a pot, stems, seeds and skins and all. Add water to about 1/3 the way up the apples and simmer, stirring a few times until all of the apples are soft. When they’ve cooled, use a food mill to strain out the inedible parts and enjoy. The skins impart untold vitamins and a rosy pink color to the sauce. You can experiment with additions like cinnamon or honey. Some of my After School chefs thought allspice would be a good addition. They said it made the applesauce taste like apple pie. Be creative and try adding different spices to small batches. My daughter wants me to freeze some for when her baby comes to visit with nothing added….just the great taste of apples.

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Westminster Garden Vegetable Soup

Every year our school holds a family Open House at the end of October to share our fall schoolwork in progress. Families are invited to bring a pot luck soup and/or bread for a quick supper before visiting their children’s classrooms. This year the After School Program chefs and I invented our own soup to contribute to Open House.

Adding broccoli florets.

All of the fresh produce except the garlic (next year we’ll grow our own) was harvested from our school garden.

Dicing garlic.

Please note the concentration involved in food prep. I had tested this soup on the students earlier in the month. They loved it! Part of that might have been because they helped put it together. This is a great and quick recipe for a wintry night.

Kale de-ribbing and shredding.

The cider vinegar is just the right compliment for the green salty flavor. Add a garnish of yogurt to the top and serve with warm crusty bread.

Westminster Garden Soup Recipe