Just when gardeners were ready to throw in their trowels for the season, middle school students returned to take over Miriam School's gardens tended by green-thumbed campers all summer.
Students in the classes of Jenny Ward and Sara Barnes have set maintenance jobs in a daily 15-minute gardening session. A plentiful cucumber harvest let them make pickles with various flavors. Students and faculty tasted them Tuesday, Aug. 18.
When the 90-plus student body headed onto the playground, one student posted a handmade sign: "Gone fishin'."
Not so for Wand's nine students present that day. They picked Swiss chard and two varieties of basil, checked a pot of oregano hidden by mounding mint and identified rosemary, sage, dill and oregano where a sign urged them to "Smell." They picked a sunflower to compare its seeds to a giant bloom already bagged for drying, toasting and sowing.
Miriam School has served children with complex learning disabilities and their families since 1956. An extensive after-school program draws 800 students ages 3 to 18 as well. Camps this summer enrolled 97 students between ages 5 to 14.
In a small group, Robbie Ryan asked about making pesto: "I wonder if it would taste OK to use more than one kind of basil?" He, Isaac Edgell and Molly Caro gathered purple basil for their recipe, using 2 cups of tightly packed purple basil leaves, 5 cloves garlic, 1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil, 1/2 cup finely grated parmesan cheese, 1/2 teaspoon salt and 1/2 teaspoon pepper.
Returning indoors, the students prepared that and two more versions of pesto in the teaching kitchen, professionally reworked space near the dining area.
"We don't just give lip service to hands-on learning," said Andy Thorp, executive director. "The children learn not only how to garden as the garden and the kitchen certainly fit into that particular goal. Besides being hands-on, it involves math and science and reading. It can be applied outside the classroom – learning about the science of growing things, taking care of them all the way to the dinner table. They learn how to measure and increase reading skills, how to work with others on small teams."
Vigorous shaking between two bowls loosened peels of large garlic cloves. Jacob Talko, Eli Prager and Kaden Berg proficiently stripped Swiss chard leaves from stems. Students measured small and large amounts of ingredients. When a trio of busy students poured greens into a bowl with the water already spun away, they retraced steps to separate them again. With Megan Lucas and Bobby Zaitz, Clayton Harmon carefully pushed down aromatic pesto at the edge of a blender bowl.
Wand, who helped design the kitchen, started at Miriam as a teaching assistant in 2007. The original garden plan incorporating multiple academic skills helped her gain a 2014 Emerson Excellence in Teaching award.
"This is a great example of how important it is for our students to have real life problems to work with," she said. At the end of class, they covered and refrigerated the pesto to await class the next day when they would make pasta and sample each one of the fresh pestos. Their favorite was made with spicy purple basil.
"They will write an essay on how to make the pesto at the end," she added. "That is a lot harder if you are a bystander. It is easy to get lost. But by incorporating all these academic skills into the kitchen, students can shine."
The closing of a community garden down the street, Thorp said, prompted Miriam to create its own garden. "They used to walk there, but now they can see the progress every day. This is a practical exercise rather than a theoretical one." The kitchen was completed a year ago and this was the garden's first growing season.
Wand's students helped plan the garden. They researched space, cost and sustainability and presented a business proposal to Thorp and the Miriam Foundation to approve their recommendations to hold flowers and vegetables in two gardens with landscape timbers.
Students last year helped support the endeavor by selling what they grew – lettuce, kale, spinach, broccoli, peppers, cucumbers, zucchini, tomatoes, Swiss chard, basil, potatoes, flowers – from the larger garden.
Over winter, students will decide which seeds to start and build a cold frame for an early start next spring.