By Lisa Martin
As the rainy, cool spring finally nudged closer to summer-like weather, Coffin School first graders took a walking field trip to the Tom Settlemire Community Garden – their second trip of the school year. Butternut squash, cucumber, lettuce and nasturtium seedlings that they’d planted and nurtured at school awaited them for transplanting. How exciting! Almost 140 first graders arrived in three waves of classes over the course of one school day to transplant, sow seeds and tour the garden. The goal was to help grow vegetables that would be donated to the Midcoast Hunger Prevention Program while learning about how plants grow. This event was only possible because of a dedicated group of volunteers who demonstrated planting techniques, answered questions, engaged students in conversation and showed a tremendous amount of patience and good humor! Several volunteers were retired teachers, some were plot holders and a few were veteran TSCG volunteers. It was a great day for the young and old to connect over some broken ground and work together for the good of the greater Brunswick community.
Reflecting on this day while weeding the lettuce, trellising the cucumbers and checking on the squash, it became apparent that this project hit all the targets in BTLT’s stated mission for the TSCG.
The mission of the Tom Settlemire Community Garden is to provide intergenerational organic gardening opportunities, increase the availability of locally grown food for the alleviation of hunger in our community, and offer experiential gardening education at a nominal cost to the people of the greater Brunswick & Topsham area.
Sexagenarians and septuagenarians worked side by side with six and seven year olds as they pushed trowels into the soil, measured the depth of their holes, and tucked seedlings into their new homes. The tour guides shared their knowledge of pollinators, compost piles and vegetables as kids asked questions and shared their prior gardening experiences with their leaders. Smiles, laughs and good cheer were had by all.
The benefits of this project are bound to continue as the seedlings grow and begin to produce vegetables over the coming months. Already heads of lettuce have made their way to MCHPP and snap peas are soon to follow. The cucumber plants are flowering and climbing their trellises, so it won’t be long before they produce long, spiky fruits. In the fall when the butternut squash is harvested, they will be added to the Thanksgiving baskets that MCHPP distributes to those who are food insecure. Coffin students are helping their community.
Clearly, the experience of planting seeds in the classroom and observing them grow and participating in a much bigger gardening project at the TSCG deepens students’ more theoretical learning about plants. It is an engaging, powerful and magical experience for the children. Placing a seed in the soil, tending it, waiting and then seeing it germinate is empowering, especially for those children who lack self-esteem or control in their lives. They learn not only about how plants grow but about patience, persistence and responsibility. The act of bringing this seedling to the garden and connecting it with the garden soil helps them understand where their food comes from and why we must take care of the earth. Knowing that the vegetables produced at the TSCG will be donated so that people in their community will be less hungry helps them develop empathy and community engagement. The walking field trip allows them to traverse local neighbors, exercise their bodies and minds and make connections in their town.
First grade teachers expressed their support for the program in a post-event survey:
The first grade students at Coffin School are lucky enough to visit the Tom Settlemire Community Garden both in the Fall and Spring. Just as we teach them about the life cycle of plants—they are truly able to see it come to fruition at the garden by harvesting the squash in the fall, and then planting it for next year’s first graders in the spring. The TSCG volunteers are knowledgeable, friendly, and allow the students ample time for hands-on learning, which is incredibly valuable at this age. A truly invaluable experience for our students—thank you! – Kalie Dunn
This field trip is strongly connected to our first grade curriculum in both science (plants) and social studies (community). Children learn best by doing – what better way to learn about how plants grow AND about being an active member of our community than by planting food to help Brunswick residents in need! Starting the plants in our classroom, watching the seeds become seedlings, and then transplanting them brings our life cycle learning full circle from our harvesting at the garden in the fall. After the trip we had a group discussion about our field trip and the kids had some great things to say:
“It was really cool that first we harvested food that last year’s first graders planted and then we got to plant the food for the next first graders to harvest! We helped each other learn!” Student: “Will my family eat the cucumbers we planted?” Teacher: “Well, if your family finds they are in need of food you could go to the food pantry where the cucumbers will be once they are harvested.” Student; “I didn’t know about that place. I’m glad we can do that if we need food.” – Meredith Sciacca
Children have been invited to return to the TSCG throughout the summer to extend their learning and enjoyment in the garden. On volunteer workdays (Tuesdays and Thursdays from 8:30-10:30) they can help with pest management, weeding, watering, sowing seeds and harvesting. Undoubtedly, they will observe that we are not the only ones who like to eat vegetables as they learn about pollinators, beneficial insects and garden pests. They will begin to visually discriminate which little plants are weeds and which ones are seedlings. As the plants develop and begin to mature it will become evident which plants are grown for their leaves and which ones for their fruits. And, as the season draws to a close, they will be reminded of the life cycle of plants and how it ends….until next spring.