Gardening becomes elementary at Falmouth schools

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FALMOUTH — Elementary school students might be eating their school work this fall.

Falmouth Elementary School’s new Learning Garden is growing this summer, after donations of time and money helped create a garden that will be integrated into not only the curriculum, but also the students’ diets.

School nurse Sue Raatikainen has been leading the effort to get the all-organic garden started and is now tending it over the summer with help from students volunteering through the town’s Community Services program.

Raatikainen said the garden will be tied to things students are learning in class, such as kindergartners learning about the life cycle of the monarch butterfly, or students conducting soil experiments for science labs.

“I love that this brings gardening to the kids,” she said. “It’s such a great skill, and gardening is something you can do your whole life.”

On Tuesday, incoming ninth-graders Tim O’Kenny, Jacob King and David Verdi helped water and weed the garden. The work will give them a head start on their 30 hours of community service required for graduation.

Other students will volunteer throughout the summer to help maintain the garden, said Kate Harris, recreation coordinator for Community Services.

“It gets the boys outside and lets them see what they can do in community,” she said.

In addition to volunteering at the garden, Harris said the students will help maintain trails with the Falmouth Land Trust and organize food and other goods at the Falmouth Food Pantry.

The garden, which is on the side of the elementary school next to Falmouth Middle School, is on a small slope, landscaped with large rocks, flowers and blueberry bushes. It has five raised gardening beds, allowing each grade to have its own miniature garden, although the kindergartners share with the fifth-grade students. 

All the mini-gardens in the Learning Garden are different, too, each one growing plants the students are interested in, Raatikainen said.

First grade has a pizza garden, growing herbs including oregano and basil. Second grade has a salad garden, which will produce lettuce, cucumbers, radishes and other vegetables for salads.

The third-grade students are growing bean stalks and other vine-like produce for their climbing garden. Students in fourth grade will oversee a stew garden, complete with everything to make a healthy soup, including beets, carrots and squash.

The shared fifth-grade and kindergarten garden will be dedicated to beans.

Food grown in the gardens will be integrated into the school’s food program and donated to the food pantry, Raatikainen said.

And while Falmouth High School and Middle School already have gardens, she said the Learning Garden will be the first for the elementary school.

A student coin drive in March, coupled with parent donations, raised nearly $3,000 to help pay for some of the labor and materials used to build the garden. The lion’s share of the work was done by volunteers, Raatikainen said, including an elaborate bench overlooking the garden built and donated by local architect Gunnar Hubbard.

In September, the garden will make its public debut during a statewide school garden open house organized by the Maine School Garden Network.

Raatikainen, who will provide updates on the garden’s progress on the School Department’s Wellness Blog, said she hopes teaching kids about food and how it grows will help them better understand the benefits of gardening.

“The garden will show them how to grow food, how good it can taste and how good it is for you,” she said. “The goal is to make them all life-long gardeners.”

Will Graff can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 123 or [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter: @W_C_Graff.

Sidebar Elements

Falmouth school nurse Sue Raatikainen, right, and student volunteers Jacob King, far left, and David Verdi tend to the Elementary Learning Garden on Tuesday at Falmouth Elementary School. The garden, which is in its first year, will be integrated into the curriculum and food-service program.

Incoming Falmouth ninth-grade students Tim O’Kenny, left, and Jacob King pull weeds on Tuesday at Falmouth Elementary School’s new Learning Garden.