The first-graders at Cedar Grove Elementary School loved growing — and eating — salad greens so much, they’re throwing a party to celebrate.
"The kids really, really loved it, " said Claire Gardner, first-grade reading teacher at Germantown's Cedar Grove Elementary School.
Gardner was speaking about a gardening pilot program launched this year through a partnership between Montgomery County Public Schools and the Audubon Naturalist Society's GreenKids initiative. Cedar Grove was one of seven county elementary schools — along with Germantown's Captain James E. Daly, Jr. Elementary — chosen to participate in this year's GreenKids Salad Science Project.
"My first-graders were the gardeners for it," said Gardner. "They grew the salad greens."
On Wednesday, Cedar Grove's young gardeners will celebrate a successful growing season by harvesting their fourth crop of salad greens and throwing a salad party. During previous taste tests, 18 of Gardner's 21 students cleaned their plates.
Gardner said she has found innovative ways to tie gardening into her curriculum. Her students counted the number of steps from their classroom to the gardening table and compared that to the distance traveled by store-bought lettuce, a lesson in both mathematics and environmental sustainability.
"Our lettuce was just picked 10 minutes ago," Gardner said, "versus two days ago."
As a reading teacher, Gardner had her students write thank-you letters to those who provided materials, such as the University of Maryland Extension's Grow It Eat It program, which donated the seeds. She said that her kids are very excited to meet Kevin Stubbs, of Boy Scout Troop 249, at the salad party. As part of his Eagle Scout project, Stubbs built the portable, a raised gardening table used by the students.
Officially known as a Salad Table, this innovation in gardening is the brainchild of Jon Traunfeld, director of the Home and Garden Information Center at the University of Maryland Extension. Traunfeld is a state Master Gardener coordinator and the University of Maryland extension specialist in vegetables and fruits. Elevated salad tables allow for people with limited mobility to enjoy gardening. The garden can literally come to you. Garden tables don't take up much space, so they are small enough to be used by apartment and condo dwellers. Since they are portable, they can be reused by a number of people, including elementary school classes.
The portability of these gardening tables was instrumental in the approval of this gardening initiative. Supporters of vegetable gardening in Montgomery County Public Schools had to overcome significant obstacles before this year's pilot project could be approved. Previously, some administration members, including outgoing Superintendent Jerry Weast, expressed opposition to school vegetable gardening, citing a range of concerns from maintenance to student safety.
Jenny Brown, GreenKids Schoolyard Garden coordinator, said that there was a significant push in the past 18 months in favor of gardening in Montgomery County Public Schools. Brown said the efforts of Gordon Clark, with Montgomery Victory Gardens, was instrumental in bringing gardening to the elementary schools.
"He met with the school board to advocate for edible gardens," said Brown. Clark was recently awarded as a Community Hero by the Montgomery County Civic Federation for his work as a community gardens activist.
Since last November, Brown has met with members of the school system, the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission, Montgomery College and the University of Maryland Extension to discuss the issue of gardening in schools. This roundtable led to a new Montgomery County Public School webpage devoted to creating container gardens for edibles. Brown sees this year's gardening pilot program as baby steps in the right direction.
"With minimal training and proper support, the teachers see that it's easy to grow an edible garden," Brown said. "This is the perfect compromise."
A portable garden alleviates concern about maintenance and safety. Garden tables can be stored over the summer and don't require maintenance. During the school year, the garden table can be moved to a secure, safe location for student use. The schools chosen for the pilot project all had protected courtyards.
Robin Hessey, a colleague of Traunfeld, is the advanced training coordinator for the Maryland Master Gardener Program. In 2009, in response to renewed public interest, her organization trained 458 Master Gardeners to teach basic vegetable gardening.
“It’s amazing," Hessey said. "For years, we were trying to get people interested in vegetable gardening and all of the sudden they were. It had a lot to do with economic conditions. Hopefully, they will stick with it."