Middle school campers put down roots in garden camp


BENNINGTON -- For the fifth year, Mount Anthony Union Middle School is hosting the "Growing New Roots Summer Farm and Garden Camps" this summer.

The camp, run by middle school teachers Stephen Greene and Helen Fields, gives students the opportunity to learn about planting, growing, and harvesting strawberries, peppers, corn, beans, squash, basil, potatoes, and many other fruits, vegetables, and herbs. The program runs for two weeks this year, July 7 through 11 and July 28 through Aug. 1. Eleven children signed up for the first week, and there are still spots open the second week, according to Fields. The program is open to any students who were at the middle school last year or will be there next year.

On Monday, the first day of the program, students made strawberry smoothies from fresh-picked strawberries and learned how to plant the "three sisters" -- corn, beans, and squash. The program runs from 9 a.m. to noon, and bus transportation is available to get the students home, thanks to Middle School principal Tim Payne. The program is funded partially by the Middle School Agriculture Committee and partially by the $1,500 Vermont Community Garden Network Grant, which the program has received for five consecutive. It has also received funding from the 21st Century Grant, which funded the MOSAIC program, but which the SVSU did not receive this year.

According to Fields, many have questioned the timing of the program, which has students planting vegetables and other plants in July, rather than the spring. However, she says, it works out very well to have students harvest the crops when they return to school in the fall. "We plant in July for an October and November harvest," she said. While the program does include a number of fun activities, the students do most of the hard garden work themselves. "They think they're here for strawberry smoothies," joked Fields, looking at the new class of students, "But they're not!"

The students gave a wide variety of different reasons for why they signed up for the program. Some were forced by their parents, and others joined because their friends were participating. Some, however, just simply love learning. "I like it because you get to learn about fruits and vegetables and bugs that you wouldn't get to otherwise," said Raven Realmuto. Besides working in the garden, students will have the opportunity to work in the woodshop making posts and signs for the garden, and Fields hopes to have them visit area farms and the Kitchen Cupboard food pantry. "We want to teach them the economics of food justice," said Fields.

Of course, not all of the lessons of the day were simply about planting. Greene, who teaches sustainability at the middle school, asked the students, as they were cleaning up after their smoothies, asked the students why it was important to use composting bins rather than a composting pile. "We don't want animals to think this is their dining room," he told them, "What else will animals eat if they learn to come here looking for food?"

"Our vegetables!" shouted the middle schoolers.

"Middle schoolers!" corrected Greene, with a smile.

Fields explained that the "three sisters" planting ususally made up the first day of camp. The idea behind that type of garden is that corn makes a natural beanstalk, while beans release nitrogen into the soil, which in turn helps the corn grow. Finally, squash can be planted beneath the corn and beans for an optimal garden. "If you don't plant squash, what's going to grow up and make you do a lot of work? Weeds!" said Fields.

Before they started gardening, Fields told the students that this particular garden had been dedicated as the "Three Brothers Garden" in memory of three high school students, Aaron Sprague, Arthur Eriksen, and Tyler Eriksen, who had been killed in a car crash in 2011, just before the start of garden camp.

Maggie Callahan, a representative from the Vermont Community Garden Network visited the program on Monday, one of seven that the group sponsors. "This is really exciting," she said, "I love what's happening here."

Students from the summer physical education class also came out to help with the garden for P.E. credit, led by John Martin. "I've got some young, strapping gentlemen for you," said Martin as he arrived with the students, who Greene quickly equipped with hoes and set to work in a different garden.

The gardens at MAUMS may not have been possible without the help of the Youth Agriculture Project, which continues to maintain a large portion of the gardens. That project, started by Katherine Keys roughly nine years ago, allows students at the Tutorial Center to participate in gardening programs at the Middle School and in North Bennington. Five years ago, the program moved to its current location, and it wasn't long before the Middle School began expanding the gardens for its own students to use. Frank Palisano, who oversees the middle school portion of the Youth Ag. program, has spent months prepping the fields used by that project, and finally got to meet the participating students last weekend. "They're great kids," he said, "I'm really happy to be a part of it, it's an awesome project."

Those interested in signing up for the second week of the farm and garden camp can contact Fields at 802-753-5751 or by email at hfields@svsu.org.

Derek Carson can be reached for comment at dcarson@benningtonbanner.com. Follow him on Twitter @DerekCarsonBB


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