It’s the time of year for slicing open sunset-colored butternut squash, peeling back the green sheaths of multi-colored corn stalks, and putting gardens to bed for winter’s rest. Tending to these chores with middle schoolers is part of how teacher Lisa Wood expands the world of life science for students.
For more than a decade, she has volunteered to work with students at Bethlehem Middle School twice a week afterschool in a garden club. Slim string beans, carrots, leafy lettuce, tomatoes and radishes, along with root vegetables such as potatoes and squash, are among the bounty growing here.
At her desk on the second floor, Wood looked out at corn as high as where she was sitting on a fall afternoon. It will be used for decoration.
Outdoors, it’s all about the dirt and what grows in it. Lessons that come from the school’s two gardens involve sustainability, recycling, life cycles, germination, reproduction of organisms, pollination and knowing where food comes from. Wood, a member of the Bethlehem Central Teachers Association, works in the garden with assistant principal Mark Warford, who runs the club. Retired teacher Ed Gill helped a lot in the garden as well. Whether it’s tilling the soil, planting the seeds, weeding, watering or harvesting, Wood says the students “do everything.” They also take apart and reassemble drip lines used to water the plants in the big garden. Vegetables in the little garden are watered by hand. In the summer, parents, educators and students volunteer to help with watering and caring for the garden.
The work begins in March when students start growing seeds inside using grow lights. At the end of the growing season, they pull out plants and haul compost (some of it made in school; and some ordered from a local, organic farmer.)
“They spread the compost and mix the soil so we’re all set to go for next spring,” said Wood.
Volunteerism is also mixed in the soil. Some of the produce grown here is donated to a local food pantry. Students sell other produce at a local farmer’s market, and use the proceeds to support the garden. They have been able to purchase a shed to store tools and a new mini greenhouse to expand the growing season. Once a year the nascent gardeners contribute their goods to the school for Salad Day. All the school’s students are treated to salads made from vegetables grown in the garden for their lunch.
“Even the bowls are compostable,” said Wood.
Students who work in the garden have their service hours tracked.
“They do so much. I don’t think they realize what comes of it does so much good,” said Wood, who has taught in Bethlehem for 28 years. The boys and girls also make straw scarecrows to line the entranceway to the school in the fall.
This year, students are also starting a bird watch in conjunction with Cornell University and Project FeederWatch to help scientists discover changes in bird populations. Bird houses have been set up in the garden and students will use binoculars and guidebooks to track and report their finds.
The school community takes part in an annual fall district-wide Farm to You Fest, where activities range from collecting donations of New York fruit and vegetables for people in need, in partnership with Capital Roots’ Squash Hunger program; to scavenger hunts, and fruit and veggie bingo.