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School’s garden offers learning from the ground up

A gardening project at Bedford’s Davis Elementary gives students hands-on lessons in nature, sharing

Davis Elementary students June Kim and Max Fitzgerald (above) and their classmates (top right) join forces to cook treats featuring pumpkins from the Bedford school’s garden. Davis Elementary students June Kim and Max Fitzgerald (above) and their classmates (top right) join forces to cook treats featuring pumpkins from the Bedford school’s garden. (Photos by Joanne Rathe/Globe Staff)
By Kathleen Burge
Globe Staff | / November 24, 2011

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One warm morning earlier this month, first- and second-graders kneeled on soft earth outside the Davis Elementary School in Bedford and pushed garlic cloves into the soil.

“Don’t cover them yet,’’ said Meighan Matthews, a local gardener who has been working with the students. “Just sort of poke them into the ground.’’

“Is it supposed to stick out this way?’’ asked Owen MacQueen, one of the students in Debbie Davies’s class.

“Yes,’’ Matthews assured him.

Once the garlic cloves were spread around the bed, Matthews showed the students how to push them further into the earth and cover them with hay, to protect them during the long winter.

The students grew this garlic last year, and now these bulbs will produce more plants and garlic that will be ready to pick next year.

Three years ago, Davis Elementary students started growing a small circle of flower bulbs and garlic. Lots of schools have begun to plant small gardens, but at Davis Elementary the students planted so many vegetables - including chard, kale, eggplant, lettuce, beans, tomatoes, beets, and cabbage - and herbs that this year they donated more than 500 pounds of produce to local food pantries.

“I am so inspired by how kids respond to getting their hands in the dirt and seeing how food grows,’’ Matthews said. “It is sort of miraculous. They just get this gleam in their eye.’’

The garden began when Matthews was starting her new business, Growing for Good, and her daughter was in first grade at the Davis School. Matthews began to wonder if her daughter’s class would like to plant a garden as well. Davies, the teacher, liked the idea, and that fall the students started small.

Later, the garden expanded, and the students harvested radishes and lettuce and snap peas in the spring, and pumpkins and garlic in the fall. They set aside some garlic cloves for another project this fall: making garlic bread.

“They did everything from starting the seeds inside, watching them grow, transplanting them outside, and harvesting food, and then cooking with them,’’ Matthews said.

This was the first year Matthews took vegetables from the school garden to give to local groups, including the Bedford Community Table and Food Pantry, and Gaining Ground, a Concord group that grows fruits and vegetables and donates them to meal programs. Both groups said they haven’t received donations from other school gardens.

“Kids just spend so much time in front of screens,’’ said Michelle deLima, one of Gaining Ground’s farm managers.

“I think it’s great for them to do work outside.’’

DeLima was especially grateful for the school’s donation of eggplant, which were in short supply this year.

Peter Gray, president and founder of the Bedford Community Table and Food Pantry, said fresh produce is always in demand by his program’s clients.

“We never have a problem using it all,’’ he said. “It all goes every time.’’

The students have been writing blog entries about their work in the garden. “We catapulted the dead sunflowers in the ditch that was next to the garden and our friend Ian found a red tomato,’’ wrote one student last month.

Matthews and the students also made pumpkin cookies and pumpkin pancakes from their yield this fall.

“I liked the cookies but not the pancakes,’’ said Daniel Petetsky, a first-grader.

Local businesses have helped the school garden, donating soil for the raised beds, and pipes for the irrigation system. This fall, parents have been dropping off leaves to mulch the garden over the winter.

During this growing season, about 100 students - from four classrooms at Davis - got their hands dirty helping with the garden. Matthews and the students enlarged the garden to fill nearly the entire triangle in a corner of the school property.

In the spring, the students grew so much lettuce that it was used in cafeteria lunches for three days. Matthews would like to eventually spread the program to the entire school. As part of her business, Matthews plants gardens for people, and she encourages her clients to donate a portion of the food they grow to a food pantry or other charity.

Some of the Bedford students have gardens at home; some have never worked with plants or seeds before.

“I don’t have a garden, so it’s an experience for me to plant,’’ said Max Fitzgerald, a second-grader.

Now the growing season is over, and the garden is nearly bare.

Over the winter, Matthews will help the students plot out their garden for the spring. They will start growing some of their plants in the classroom. And then, when the weather turns warm, they will start planting.