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Heather Priest organic gardening

“Chopped” champion brings organic gardening to schools

Inch by inch and row by row may be how a garden grows, but across the Wilton School District’s four main schools, their gardens are developing as fast as the students. “We’ve had growing interest in organic gardening across the schools,” says Superintendent Dr. Kevin Smith, while discussing the benefits of the new gardens at Cider Mill and Middlebrook schools. “The lessons are endless.”

While the Miller Driscoll School and Wilton High School have benefited from longtime gardening programs, the whole school district united in growth this past summer with the establishment of the Cider Mill Organic Garden and the new Middlebrook School Greenhouse where students started sowing seeds this school year.

“These students have lots of technology experience and we want to make sure they also have a grounding experience of where their food comes from and how the environment works,” say Cider Mill PTA garden co-chairs Sabeth Albert, Joanna Lepore, and Margo Silvian of the newness and evolution of the programs. “We are excited about the continuity for students, learning about the benefits and impacts of gardening and being environmentally aware.”

The Cider Mill garden is funded by the Parent Teacher Association and was founded alongside a Zero Waste Garden Club run by teachers Anastasia Skroubelos and Alyssa Peterson. The afterschool club has an enthusiastic core following and hopes to enlist many more students in the coming months.
“It’s nice to plant flowers and garden,” says fifth grader Grace Jeanes. “I like helping the earth.”

At Cider Mill, everything from garlic to spring bulbs has taken root thanks to the green spirits of these young horticulturists. In its inaugural planting season, daffodil bulbs were planted with the intention of growing them for bouquets to give to teachers and various vegetables were sown to share with students and possibly even the Comstock Community Center.

“I like getting to share with others,” says third grader Janavi Premkumar of her favorite part of the garden.

The Middlebrook Greenhouse is the brainchild of “Chopped”-champion-chef-turned-teacher, Heather Priest. The building was engineered by Green Up Group and grant-funded by The Wilton Education Foundation alongside Wilton’s Adult Community Education Program.

Heather Priest organic gardening with students

Heather Priest helps students plant spinach seedlings.

“This kind of project based learning lets kids connect learning with something tangible,” says Brian Ladewig, co-chair of the Wilton Education Foundation. “Through the greenhouse classes, students see the impact they can have on their community while exploring science, wellness, business, nutrition and other real world topics.”

Several years in the making, the greenhouse made its verdant debut at the start of this school year. Students who are enrolled in the quarterly Family Consumer Science Program are given the opportunity to try out their green thumbs and plant across the many beds year round in the heated and spacious, gabled greenhouse that spans sixteen feet by thirty-two feet.

From kale to spinach and tomatoes, students in one quarter plant vegetables that will be harvested and prepared by the next quarter’s students.
“It gives student the opportunity to constantly keep with a cycle of growth,” says Priest. “To have learning at this level in a middle school is amazing.”
The class is literally “garden to table,” as Priest puts it. For example, one class may plant spinach and the next class may harvest the yield to prepare spinach pasta. Another class may sow tomatoes, herbs, and cucumbers and the following class will learn to make a salsa and a balsamic cucumber salad. “Everybody loves the family consumer science class and looks forward to it the most,” says Gina Yerrall whose twin boys, Jonathan and Luke, attend Middlebrook.

Both the Cider Mill and Middlebrook programs offer students the opportunity to take their gardens from seed to harvest and afford students the lessons of thinking through how something will grow, what can be done with the vegetable or flower once it is ripe and how their collective efforts can effect their community.

“It’s teaching sustainability, stewardship, and healthy living,” says superintendent Smith. “These garden programs reinforce why this town is so special.”


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