by Eileen Weber
Joining the ranks of other Fairfield schools, North Stratfield Elementary School has planted a new garden. On a recent breezy spring day, students gathered together to break ground on what would become the site of an edible schoolyard garden full of vegetables, herbs, and flowers. The following Saturday, the scout troop constructed the two raised beds that will support the plantings.
Since Mill Hill Kindergarten teacher Dan Smith started the first one in 2004, school gardens have been popping up all over town. In 2006, Roger Sherman Elementary School incorporated their organic garden into their curriculum with the help of Annelise McCay, a staunch advocate for school lunch nutrition. As a self-proclaimed foot soldier for organic school gardens, McCay has been partly responsible for gardens spreading like wildfire among the elementary schools.
But along the way, McCay gained a partner in crime. Amie Guyette Hall, a certified holistic health counselor and founder of her own business, From Your Inside Out, heard about what McCay was doing with the school gardens and has been working with the town middle schools. In the last six years, eleven of the sixteen schools in town either already have built a school garden or are in the process of building one.
Because of that, Hall and McCay are spearheading a new community organization. Modeled after the Westport Green Village Initiative (GVI) and a sister group to Ridgefield GVI, the Fairfield GVI will support all the school gardens as their first attainable goal in making the town green. “It’s an important message we’re sending,” said Hall. “This is where we are starting because we can realize that goal.”
And that’s where North Stratfield comes in. As the most recent member of a grassroots movement to introduce Fairfield’s agricultural ancestry to school children, they have planted the seeds and are watching them grow. And to McCay, that agricultural ancestry is a key element to their education.
Years ago, Fairfield had over 200 working farms. Today, we have one. And that farm’s lease will be up in less than four years. It will be anybody’s guess as to what will happen with the land. That’s one of the reasons McCay thinks gardening is so important.
“Fairfield has lost its agricultural roots,” said McCay. “One by one, farms have disappeared. I find it heartbreaking.”
Fortunately for North Stratfield, the parents, teachers, and administration, specifically the school’s principal Deborah Jackson, share that energy. Anika Knox, co-chair for the school’s garden, said everyone involved has been very enthusiastic. “What’s not to love about it? It’s a garden!” she said. “And my son loved it! Anything that gets him dirty, he likes.”
Knox said the kids started their planting on a “growing” cart-or traveling dirt, as she called it-with potting soil and newspaper cups. They worked with sunflower, cucumber, eggplant, and nasturtium seeds. Over the summer they hope to plant corn, squash, beans, and onions. Lettuce will be planted in the early fall. With plans to schedule maintenance over the summer, this will give the kids the opportunity to see the garden in three seasons.
The hope is that with support and regular maintenance the garden will not only thrive, but eventually be used to support the greater community. “The first stage will be to grow the garden for the school,” said Knox. “But ultimately, we’d love to donate to shelters, like Connecticut Food Bank or Operation Hope, or some of the elder communities in our area.”
Knox also said another goal will be a Seed-to-Table initiative to get the food from the garden into the cafeteria. For Leann Ratner, whose two sons Ben and Zachary helped in the garden with their scout troop, the kids’ reaction to the garden shows what an impact it has made. “My son Ben, who is in first grade, couldn’t wait to tell me they planted eggplant. I hate eggplant,” she said jokingly. “He came in and said, ‘Mom, guess what we planted? It’s your favorite!'”
Ratner said this kind of project is appealing to all age groups. No matter the grade in school, all the kids seemed excited at the idea of seeing things actually sprouting. Part of what feeds that enthusiasm is a supportive community. “If you ask for something,” said Ratner, “someone always steps up and says ‘I can do that!'”
The garden has not only had community support but financial support as well. In the fall, they received an ACT (Adults and Children Together) Grant of $400. That money went to purchasing organic compost, tools, hoses, and other gardening equipment. This spring, they received an in-kind donation of $500 from Whole Foods Market in Westport. The donation included seeds, herbs, and some tasty snacks to give the kids a little break from all their hard work.
Aimee O’Brien, who co-chairs with Knox, doesn’t think the hard work should discourage other schools from their own garden projects. “It’s not as hard as people think,” she said. “Folks are really willing to help out. Building relationships is key to a successful garden.”
She also said no matter what way you look at it, gardens bring adults and children together. Fairfield GVI hopes to accomplish that one garden at a time. At the same time, each school garden brings the parents, teachers, and students together. Apparently, vegetables aren’t the only things that grow in a garden.