PORTLAND — School gardens do more than teach kids about the importance of healthy eating and where food comes from; they can also help teach vital skills such as cooperation, responsibility and patience.
Those are just some of the reasons why the Maine School Garden Network is holding an event to celebrate the most successful school gardening programs in southern Maine.
Called the Summer Success Garden Tour, the event will allow participants to meet and talk with local school garden educators, experience how these programs work first hand and learn about ways to enhance the school garden experience for students.
The tour, which is aimed mostly at educators and those interested in starting or expanding a school garden program, will include stops in Portland, Durham, Freeport, Windham, Westbrook and Bath.
The cost is $125 for both days, Sept. 15 and 16, and scholarships are available. Participants can also earn continuing education credits.
In addition, the Maine School Garden Network will also be exhibiting at the Common Ground Country Fair in Unity on Sept. 21, 22 and 23, when a series of speakers are being sponsored.
Michelle Erhard, development director for the Maine School Garden Network, said along with growing fresh produce, school garden programs are relevant to the overall curriculum because they can be used to provide hands-on learning in a number of key subject areas.
That runs the gamut from math and science to language arts and even history, she said. “Additionally, school gardens provide opportunities for community service projects and (give students) a connection to the outdoors.”
The overall mission of the Maine School Garden Network is “to promote and support educational gardens for youth and to encourage school programs (that) teach healthy eating and environmental stewardship,” according to the organization’s website.
“Our vision is for all school gardens in Maine to be connected to the resources and support they need to thrive,” Erhard added. She said there are about 130 schools in the network, but “(we) know there are far more.”
She said members of the network get access to an informational newsletter that includes gardening tips, along with other information. “We (also) host educational and networking events for school garden educators … (and) provide technical assistance to school gardens, (such as) assessing garden health,” Erhard said.
And, with its School Garden Grown program, the network helps schools to enter their produce at agricultural fairs across the state while working with fair staff to highlight the bounty found in school gardens.
Summer is the height of the growing season in Maine, and Erhard said school garden programs handle that in a variety of ways.
Some ask students and their families to volunteer to weed, water and harvest over the summer, while others rely on civic organizations, such as Boy and Girl Scouts, or hire someone to tend the garden.
In addition, she said many schools also plant crops that are ready for harvest after Labor Day when classes have resumed. Those crops most often include root vegetables such as potatoes, radishes, carrots and turnip. Pumpkins and squash are also late summer to early fall crops that grow well with little tending.
School gardens don’t just have to grow produce to be included in the network, Erhard said. Some have also developed pollinator gardens in which specific types of plants are grown in order to attract pollinators like bees, butterflies and beetles.
She said what is grown in a school garden “depends on the individual school and what the needs are. Some school cafeterias love working with their school gardens, and the garden team will work with food service staff to plant foods that will be used on the lunch line.”
“Sometimes schools develop pizza gardens, which feature crops like tomatoes, basil, peppers, and onions (and) some schools focus on perennial crops like asparagus, fruit trees (and) herbs like oregano and thyme,” Erhard added.
In the Portland Public Schools, for instance, Food Services Director Jane McLucas said the school garden coordinators “will call me when they have a product and we will coordinate it into our menus, or prep and serve the product in our fruit and veggie bar.”
She said including produce from school gardens into lunches or other meals is important because “students are much more likely to choose a vegetable if they’ve grown it. It’s a great way to get them to try foods they may otherwise not (eat).”
Erhard said produce from school gardens that isn’t used for school meals is also sometimes sent home with food insecure students or is donated to local food pantries. “Others just have an open gate policy where students can graze during recess or families can come during non-school hours to harvest,” she said.
Erhard said the school gardens selected for the Summer Success Garden Tour were all chosen to “highlight their approaches to success and how they’ve made use of the Maine School Garden Network’s program offerings.”
In Portland, 11 of the city’s 17 schools have some type of school garden, according to Lily Chaleff, the schools and youth program coordinator at Cultivating Community, which operates three of the school garden programs.
She agreed with Erhard that “school gardens are an amazing resource to support school learning goals while also connecting kids to healthy food, the outdoors and other important skills that have been lost from modern-day life.”
“Knowing where your food comes from and how to grow it gives us a connection to the planet,” Chaleff said. “We hope to see more growth in all the school (garden) programs, as well as support from the whole community to make them vibrant spaces.”
Students explore the bounty to be found in the garden at Reiche Elementary in Portland’s West End. Some of Portland’s school gardens are included in an upcoming Maine School Garden Network tour.
Students tend the gardens at the Wolfe’s Neck Center in Freeport. The center is included in an upcoming Maine School Garden Network tour of some of the most successful school-based garden programs in the southern part of the state.