Growing something special
The halls of North Falmouth Elementary School have been empty since late June, but the community gardens have been bustling all summer long.
The seed for the project was planted last year when Principal Timothy Adams approached the faculty about ways to revitalize unused gardens behind the school. Michael Irving, a special education teacher at the school, suggested introducing outdoor learning to the curriculum to combat attention weakness while also teaching students the connection between healthy eating and nutrition.
“We started with the teachers to see what they wanted to do, and what made sense with their science curriculum,” Adams said. “Then the project took off from there.”
Irving formed a committee of students, parents, and community volunteers, including Heidi DiGiovanni of the Falmouth Garden Club, a retired teacher who previously worked with Adams in Wareham. The committee selected plants that could be connected to the syllabus and would also thrive in the proposed area.
Adams credited Hamilton Tree Company and the Falmouth Department of Public Works for their assistance clearing the land in preparation for last year’s Arbor Day celebration, which he cited as a major impetus.
“We needed the space to be cleared and the tree cover to be thinned in order to get more sun,” Adams said. “Finding the labor solution to that obstacle was ideal.”
“We envisioned the area to have a natural feel that would blend in with the landscape rather than an extra artificial structure, so we were able to recycle the stumps and brush for that effect,” he added.
The Garden Club provided initial funding, and a grant from Falmouth Education Foundation paid for the plants. Additional support came from the North Falmouth Parent Teacher Organization.
The end result is a butterfly garden that attracts an array of species, including Monarchs, and thriving edible gardens boasting strawberries, lettuce, cherry tomatoes, and sweet peppers, to name a few.
Pumpkins and potato crops await the students when they return to school next week. Parents, students, and other volunteers from the community have been busy throughout the summer maintaining the gardens and enjoying the fruits of their labor.
“We’ve probably had about a thousand cherry tomatoes alone,” Irving said. “This took off more than we anticipated.”
Art teacher Kathryn Sodaitis, a member of the planning committee who worked with her students to paint kindness rocks to decorate the garden, also appreciates the project as a parent.
“My two children go to school here and we live down the road, so over the summer we would come right before dinner to pick our tomatoes,” she said. “My daughter doesn’t like lettuce, but she’ll eat the lettuce she grew in Mrs. Gilbert’s class.”
Irving is grateful for the community collaborations the project inspired, including those with Coonamessett Farms and Gardens by Barbara. To coincide with the third grade lesson on Wampanoag culture and their visit to Plimoth Plantation, Gertrude “Kitty” Hendricks of the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe oversaw the establishment of a traditional “three sisters” garden of corn, beans, and squash. Hendricks, who provided the seeds for the corn, visited the school for the full moon planting to perform traditional native dances.
Irving believes the tangible nature of a garden can be a more interesting and effective way to introduce new material to children.
“Some students only learn about the Wampanoags and what they did for the settlers from a textbook,” he said. “This is about as hands-on as you can get.”
Adams also cited the importance of providing outdoor opportunities in addition to recess. While serving as assistant principal at Mullen-Hall School, he witnessed the positive educational and emotional impact of a garden, for the community garden was implemented during his tenure.
“We’re seeing a higher level of anxiety and depression in younger children now, and one of the remedies is time in outdoor spaces,” he said. “If you create something like this, it gives everyone an excuse to get outside and get their hands dirty in a way that is unlike technology, which can be hyper-engaging, almost to the point of exhaustion. I think we do a nice job of balancing technology within the building, and bringing back some of this kind of learning is important for balance.”
Irving’s daughter Samantha, a fourth grader at the school, discovered a new favorite vegetable during the planting process.
“I had no idea what radishes were but now I really like them,” she said. “But you want to make sure you have something to drink because they have a little kick.”
Her friend, Avery Webb, appreciates the satisfaction that comes from a successful crop.
“I like growing corn myself instead of just reading about it,” she said.