Vermont School Garden

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

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Sprucing Up the Courtyard

A number of years ago, we had a very warm and nurturing Kindergarten teacher named Vicky. She was inspired to create a garden world with her class in the courtyard outside our hallway and library. Vicky has since left us to teach in Wyoming, but her legacy remains, complete with a small pond. Unfortunately the weeds had taken over much of the little garden. The pond fountain was down and much attention was needed to bring the garden back. This longterm project was taken on by fourth grader, Annaleeza, who noticed the neglect. Annaleeza is a natural gardener. As the spring flowers began to arrive, the weeds did as well, cluttering the paths and the flowers. During many of her recess times this spring, Annaleeza and I herded the strawberries into one bed.creating a strawberry bed We divided perennials; they love being divided when they’re mature!


Our terrific custodian, Jeff, found the missing pieces to the fountain and reattached them to make it work again. A few days ago, Annalezza tasted her first ripe strawberry! The courtyard garden has come a long way in her care.Annaleeza and the hosta

Annaleeza's strawberry

new fountainmaking a border centurium



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planting squash 3 sisters

The fourth graders got an early start to planting their fall crop last week. They met their new teachers and they laid the groundwork for a study of the native american three sisters garden. Teamwork will be one of the important curriculum umbrellas for their fifth grade teachers next year and interdependence is one of the overriding themes of ‘ three sisters” growing practices. In three rows with nine hills in each row, teams of students planted corn, squash and beans. Next year they’ll discover the relevance of this planting and perhaps see it as a metaphor for learning together! In the meantime, we have to keep the weeds from overtaking the new corn bean and squash plants.

Planting celery gr 5

grade 1 and 6 plant potatoesK hands planting squashThe entire Westminster Center School came out to plant their crop for next year on May 31st. Each class got a lesson from our incredible sponsor farmer, Paul Harlow, who has led this planting day ritual for 25 years! He often interjected a math problem for students to solve. In this case, there were 150 celery plants in the tray he was holding. If each row were 75 feet long and the plants needed to be spaced 12 inches apart, how many rows could be planted from that tray of celery plants? Each time a problem was posed, a hush fell on the circle of students. You could almost hear them computing. If they weren’t the ones who came up with the correct answer, students definitely got a good sense of how much math computation is involved in farming. Squash needed to be planted 2 feet apart. How many inches was that? Show an approximate foot with your hands. How can you measure eight inches with your hand span?

Sixth grade students will not be harvesting next fall. We’ll miss them as they go on to middle school elsewhere. They helped the first graders plant a crop of potatoes. I want to give the sixth graders an opportunity to leave behind a memory of the garden written on flags that will fly from our tomato stakes this summer. Many of these students have been cultivating our garden since they were in Kindergarten.

The basil that was started from seed in our After School Program and transplanted into recycled milk containers by our fourth grade was planted by fourth graders in our kitchen garden.

Popcorn will again  be on the weekly school snack menu next year, thanks to plantings done with the third grade class on planting day! Second graders planted tomatoes. Some will be used in our salad bar at lunchtime next fall. Roma tomatoes will be used to make sauce for science/cooking classes.

Early in  the day, one of our wonderful Kindergarten teachers, Valerie Kosednar, led us in the traditional song, ” Oats Peas Beans and Barley Grow.” Do you or I or anyone know how oats, peas, beans and barley grow?

Planting basil grade 42nd plant tomatoes

Popcorn planting lesson


Third Graders Dive into Good Gardening Practices

This month the third graders studied the effects of erosion by observing it under three different mini environmental conditions. They had had an introduction to the concept of different forms of erosion earlier in the week. Their teacher, Atasi Das, reviewed their observations of the effects of wind and water on sand. Then we began a new experiment, using three cutoff  clear plastic bottles and the tops of three other bottles.


atasi demonstrating review of erosion



what I know about eroeion, what I wonderobserving different runoff






A small group of growing basil plants was fit into the first bottle. In the second bottle, forest floor matter was spread on top of potting soil. The third bottle contained only potting soil. Students were asked to discuss what they thought would happen if an equal amount of water were poured through each environment. They wrote about what they knew and what they wondered about this activity. They predicted what they thought they might observe when the water drained off.

Then their teacher, Atasi, poured water into each environment. You can see the results in the bottle tops that caught the ‘runoff.’ Students formed their conclusions about how to protect earth from water erosion.

recording observations erosion experiment

final results

These curious and thoughtful students are also running an experiment in lettuce growing. Each student has adopted two lettuce plants: one that was started at Harlow Farm and one plant that was started by the After School Program. At least once a week they walk out to the school garden to measure and record changes in their plants. One student noticed that his plant had grown from 3 3/4 inches to 4 1/4 inches tall. He computed the amount of growth that had occurred in a week.

measuring lettuce


recording data lettuce growth

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shaws brand

Westminster Organics

Westminster Organics

Orvilles brand

Where does your popcorn come from and does that make a difference? The fourth grade scientists were at it again last week. They conducted a blind taste test of three varieties of popcorn. Westminster Organics was matched against the great Orville Redenbacher and Shaw Supermarket’s finest. Without knowing which was which, students had to use at least three descriptive adjectives in their written  observations. Then they tried each for taste and texture……warm overtones of earthiness, anyone? After testing all three, each student voted on his/her own favorite popcorn. The results of each class are listed below. In one class Shaw’s was the top choice; in the other fourth grade, Harlow’s Organic popcorn won by a whisker! This is a fun experiment to try with your family.

tasting popcorn

Class results #2

student response popcorn taste testClass blind test vote results

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April Gardening at School

Garden spring cleaningJourney North tulips

We’re getting our garden ready for some early additions to the salad bar at school! The other day a team of first and fourth graders cleared away the old kale. Can you see the garlic sprouting up from under the straw? Journey North tulips are adding their crimson touch to our garden palette.

Children planted sugar snap peas. These were direct sown, 2 inches apart, into the warm soil I tilled up last week. This week lettuce and maybe baby kale will be added.

pulling up old kale

planting sugar snaps

Paul and Ron put up the arbor

Two friends wandered out from school just when the arbor needed to be put into place! We’ll try planting sweet peas (the flowering non-edible kind) around the arbor this year. It’s so wonderful to imagine the beginnings of a new growing space each year. Students in the After School Program are working on their dream garden designs.

We’re also preparing seedlings for the garden by starting them at school and giving them a boost at Harlow Farm greenhouse. So far we have mustard, basil, and lettuce seedlings, as well as the start of a butterfly garden (echinacea, zinnia, marigold and sweet peas). We’re loving this warm sunny weather…more to come!

mustard basil seedlings

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sealing dumplings

sealing dumplings 2

happy dumpling chef











The third graders were working hard to finish their research reports on Nepal, beloved country of their teacher, Ian Levy. He  spent a year living there before coming to Westminster. I learned a lot just peering over their shoulders as the students were working.  There was an incredible slideshow of his adventures running on the smart board screen as the students worked.

I called  few at a time to the classroom kitchen to learn with me about  how to make a favorite food served in Nepal: momos! These are steamed dumplings filled with vegetables and yak meat. Since we didn’t have a source for fresh yak, we substituted tofu. Steamed dumplings and accompanying dipping sauces are ubiquitous in Asian countries. I had learned from a Chinese visitor to my classroom years ago, how to press paper thin rounds of dough into moon shaped dumplings. She might have been skeptical about the skills of eight year olds. I was not, and the students rose to the occasion. You can find dumpling wrappers in most supermarkets. If you’re lucky enough to have an Asian market nearby, you’re sure to find a large variety of wrappers.

Students  observed, sketched and taste tested the  fresh ingredients that had been finely diced and combined to make the filling. They then graded ingredients by flavor. Reactions were mixed, but most students were game for learning about tastes foreign to their palates. I am a firm believer that food preparation is one of the best ways to gain an early appreciation for diversity.


waiting for wrappers

Each dumpling wrapper had to have its perimeter dabbed with water to allow the dumpling to hold together. Then, the outer edge of the filled half-moons were carefully crimped. Dumplings were placed on an oiled cookie sheet and covered with plastic wrap until we were ready to steam them.

wetting wrappers

tray of finished dumplings

We steamed the dumplings in a stainless steel steamer over a large frying pan filled with boiling water. We put a lid on the steamer. There are a variety of steamers available at Asian markets. Bamboo steamers are my favorites. You can oil a vegetable steamer and use that to steam your dumplings if that is all you have available.

testing the final product

The dumplingwere ready to eat after about 15 minutes of steaming. They tasted especially yummy when they were dipped in a sauce that was  a combination of soy sauce, apple cider vinegar to taste and just a bit of sesame oil (vegetable oil will do). A few slivers of scallion and fresh ginger  were added to the dipping sauce.

Momo Recipe:  Tibetan Momo

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What’s Going on at Westminster Organics in the Spring?

Last week the Fourth grade classes hopped on a school bus for a ten minute ride to Paul Harlow’s farm. He was waiting to show them where their popcorn had been curing over the winter. They also got to see Marcus, a Harlow farm icon, demonstrate an antique machine made for removing the kernels from ears of popcorn.

Corn kernel remover

Paul chicken greenhouse

One of the farmers, Brandon Allen, invented a device for storing popcorn kernels. It will take another few months of air drying for the popcorn to pop into clouds of fluffy white deliciousness. Brandon’s storage unit is a model of Yankee ingenuity. A large plastic trash can and PVC pipe are wedded together to create a rodent-free container that allows air to flow through to the kernels. We’re going to try to replicate his model on a smaller scale to store the fourth grade popcorn harvest back at school. Brandon  once attended Westminster Center School.

Future kale crop

Paul also gave the students a tour of the greenhouses. They were already beginning to fill with flats of flower and vegetable seedlings. One student said, “this makes me wish it was summer,” as she emerged from the warm steamy space. “It even smells like summer in there.” Thousands of tiny kale plants had been seeded into flats. Paul challenged the class with complicated math problems. If one flat holds this many, then how many plants do you think are in this greenhouse? No doubt about the need for good math skills on a farm!

Finally the class got a peek at a new beef herd that had recently arrived. Many questions were raised and answered about beef cattle before it was time to head back to school.

new beef herd

Many thanks for a great trip, Paul and Westminster Organics!

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More on Maples….

With cold nights and warm days, our sugaring season has been bountiful this year. The third grade students were correct in their prediction that the sap would run faster on the sunnier side of the tree. They collected quite a bit of sap and boiled it down, once disastrously and another time successfully. The trick to boiling is to stay attentive, especially in the last few minutes. That’s why, at sugar houses across Vermont there are always lots of friends hanging out and keeping the sugar makers company….no leaving this project for very long. They may not see each other through the clouds of steam, but the conversation is lively and engaging. In the last few minutes of our sugaring off, the beautiful syrup was neglected momentarily. It boiled away to something that looked like black glass in the pot. We were undaunted but we owe our Kindergarten teacher, Paula, a new cooking pot! In a few days we collected enough sap to try boiling down again. This time we got a beautiful batch of maple butter…almost four cups! Multiply that by 40 to find out how many cups of sap we had to boil down. Many thanks go to third grade teacher, Atasi Das, and parent, Stacie Illingworth, for seeing this project through to the final sweet end.

Fourth grader, Tyler Stanley, was inspired to set a few buckets of his own. He and his dad collected the sap  from the trees at school and brought it  to their own backyard boiling set-up.

Tyler wanted to demonstrate some of the finer points of tapping trees.spiggot and hook closeup This is a type of spigot with a hole for a hook to hold the bucket once the spigot is in the tree.

After a 7/16″ hole is drilled into the tree the spigot is gently set.

hammering in spiggot

attaching bucketThe bucket is hung from the hook and a little roof is slipped onto the bucket to keep out the rain and snow.


Sliding roof on bucket




Ice from sap bucketThere was a lot of curiosity expressed in students’ written observations. They wondered how much time the sap would take to boil down, how many degrees the syrup would be when it was finished, whether the ice at the top of the sap buckets was as sweet as the sap below it. Many already had a working knowledge of evaporation even if they hadn’t all yet attached  a name to the process. One student said that the steam from the boiling sap was “just like the clouds in the sky.” The outdoor classroom was buzzing with good thinking on this warm March morning!


Vermont Trees in Early Spring

It’s finally springtime in Vermont! The third graders at Westminster Center School are betting that the maple tree in the school play yard will yield some sweet sap for boiling into maple syrup. We talked about what the kids already knew about ‘sugaring,’ a Vermont tradition….that Sugar Maples yield the sweetest sap, that sap runs best when the temperature at night is below freezing but in the day is above freezing, and that it takes approximately 40 gallons of sap to boil down to one gallon of maple syrup. Half of the class had already had some memories of sugaring, but no one knew that a group of maple trees connected by lines for sap collection is called a “sugar bush.”

We drilled a 7/16  inch hole in the tree and we ‘set’ our taps by hammering a spout and  a hook into the tree trunk. Sap came pouring out before we could even attach the bucket! The students put one bucket on the side of the tree that gets a lot of sun and one on the opposite side. They wanted to test out their theory that the sunny side of the tree would yield more sap. We’ve rigged up an outdoor boiler, with the assistance of our principal, Mr. Tullar. He brought in a deep fryer from home. The students will record the process of sugaring next week. (MORE SUGARING NEWS TO COME!)

hammering tap

We have a true friend in Russell Allen, Orchardist at the Connecticut Valley Orchards  in Westminster. He regularly donates apples to our healthy snack program here at school. He has a grandson who attended school here and is now a Westminster farmer. This week Russell visited our garden to show me how to prune our apple and pear trees. He brought a small saw and some pruning sheers and a wealth of knowledge to impart about the care and nurturing of our small garden orchard. He is a born teacher.

He first drew an outline in the snow, the illustration of “a perfectly pruned tree. It looks somewhat like a Christmas tree………wide at the bottom and narrow at the top, with plenty of space between the branches,” he said. “But this is not a perfect world, so we’ll do what we can to make our trees look as close to this as possible.” The  trees were planted by a graduating sixth grade class about six years ago. To date they haven’t produced any fruit. Russell recommended that we fertilize some of them. Some trees didn’t need anything but pruning this year. Fruit trees  need a well balanced fertilizer,  primarily rich  in nitrogen. The ground around the trees needs to be fertilized as far out as the perimeter of the tree. I’ll get to that when the snow is gone. The tender trunks also need cuffs around them to protect them from gnawing rodents.

Russell left one Honey Crisp tree unpruned and pointed out that most of it had reverted to a wild state after years of neglect. There were about five main trunks in addition to the one that had been grafted to make the original Honey Crisp tree ( the scion).  “How can we make this wild tree into an example for the children to understand?” he wondered. “I know. Tell them that this is what would happen to you if you didn’t go to school to learn.”