February brings another sowing season for the Florida gardener and along with that comes the opportunity to educate youngsters about where their food comes from (besides the supermarket), the importance of healthy diet choices and how to improve the environment.
What better way to do that than to get them digging in the dirt?
Last week students at two elementary schools were doing just that.
Youthful farmers at Countryside Montessori in Land O'Lakes had already been enjoying a cool crop harvest of lettuce, radishes and green beans in their school garden. On Thursday morning, students once again ventured outdoors to take turns planting their second crop of organic heirloom vegetables — carrots, tomatoes and edible flowers such as marigolds and nasturtium — in the new drip hydroponic garden adjacent to the school playground.
"I like that we plant stuff," said Camyrn Sheppard, 7, after covering a newly planted tomato seed in the corner of a tiered pot. "I like that we get to eat it, too."
"Everything we grow here the kids taste," said PTO volunteer coordinator Julie Toth, who serves as a coordinator for the Green School Yard project along with the school's groundskeeper, Tim Mackley and art teacher and Green School Yard liaison Jamie Wajciechowski.
"It's amazing, Toth said. "Some of the kids wouldn't touch a piece of lettuce before, but once they grow it themselves they come around. I even have to keep some of the kids from nibbling in there."
The campus already boasted traditional garden beds that have been planted by students. But during the last school year students ventured into hydroponic gardening, extending the school's environmental focus.
Two ebb and flow systems that recycle water and essential nutrients were assembled using everyday building supplies such as rain gutters, stair risers, sprinkler tubing and 20-gallon buckets. Students then went to work to expand their "living laboratory" by raising money through walk-a-thons and selling eco-friendly, all natural, handcrafted soaps and detergents.
Those efforts, along with some help from the school's parent organization, paid for a new drip system that offers space for about 770 plants and is already brimming with lettuce, peppers, celery and cabbage. Students plant only age-old heirloom variety seeds instead of genetically modified seeds. That provides another educational opportunity as students learn the history of varieties such as the Mayflower bean that was brought to this country with the pilgrims. Students also learn natural ways to keep pests and disease away from young plants.
Any food grown that the students don't eat is sold to families to raise funds for future planting. As their garden grows, students will also explore the possibility of expanding their efforts into a business — possibly a school vegetable stand — that would be open to the public.
Over at Northwest Elementary in Hudson, students in Paula Aycock's third-grade classroom were busy kicking off the school's new wellness initiative, "Chefs Move to Schools," by tossing newspaper, coffee grounds, vegetable scraps and cow manure into a newly constructed compost bin and planting carrots, potatoes, cucumbers, broccoli, lima beans bok choy, snap off mustard greens, spinach, endive and various types of lettuce into organic earth filled pots. Visiting chefs Vincent Blancato and Ray Benton led the effort. Pitching in were representatives from local organizations that have donated funds and supplies including local master gardeners, New Port Richey Lodge 1747 Loyal Order of Moose Social Club, Aripeka Elks Lodge 2529, VFW Holiday Post 10167, AMVETS Post 98 and the American Legion Post 335.
"This is Michelle Obama's thing," said Blancato, who is a member of Tampa Bay's Culinary Association. "She put out a call for chefs to get into the schools and we decided to throw our hats in the ring."
The chefs will be back on campus two more times in the coming months to meet with cafeteria workers on how to incorporate more vegetables into the school menu, said Blancato, and push the recycling effort by reminding students to compost their discarded banana peels and apple cores. They will also be back for a cooking lesson come harvest time to show students how to prepare the vegetables they planted.
"Right now we're trying to educate the younger kids and be able to provide them with a healthy, organic snack they've grown themselves," Aycock said. "We're starting out small, but we hope this is going to grow into a schoolwide project. Eventually we hope this grows into a huge garden."