WINDSOR — Students Brooke Borja and Boston Bowring stood Thursday against a small garden box outside Windsor Elementary School.

Borja, whose family owns a farm in Palermo, told Bowring what to do as they removed weeds from around strawberry and blueberry plants.

Bowring is less familiar with gardening, but he and Borja have been part of Maggie Blumenthal’s outdoor education class for almost two years.

On Thursday, they and others in their fifth-grade class returned to the garden for the first time this year. Windsor Elementary School fifth-grade teacher Kim St. Onge said it was like “they never left.”

Students of all grades at Windsor Elementary School have learned from Blumenthal, who is working with the school through the FoodCorps AmeriCorps program. She started the garden from scratch, but due to the coronavirus pandemic, this is the first year students are able to enjoy the garden’s full potential.

Blumenthal has taught students to plant seeds and weed the gardens. She has also taught them what to keep out animals, including creating a fence of sticks and a reflecting line of old Xbox 360 disks to keep birds away from plants.

Students were assigned to a station and all were eager to get to work, according to Blumenthal.

“I do this at my farm,” Borja said after getting to work. “I pick the crops. I know a little about it, but my mom mostly picks the weeds.”

Admitting that rural Maine and her alma mater, Unity College, are different from her native Connecticut, Blumenthal jumped right in by helping students learn about plant ecosystems. Most of what she knows about plants is through the FoodCorps.

Dominic Brann weeds between garlic plants Thursday during an outdoor class at the Windsor Elementary School garden. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal Buy this Photo

Blumenthal said her favorite part of running Windsor’s garden is seeing students gain appreciation for nature.

“Even if they aren’t interested in planting things, they like getting their hands in the dirt and creating the bond to nature, so they don’t abuse it and feel the need to protect it,” Blumenthal said. “There is still a disconnect from where their food comes from, so I bring them through the process slowly.”

In fact, she started the garden with input from Michael Flynn, Regional School Unit 12’s nutrition director, as a way for the district to start growing its own food to include in school lunches. Blumenthal said she focused on planting seeds of vegetables found in salads.

The garden has onions, beans, garlic, strawberries, blueberries, three kinds of tomatoes and herbs.

Blumenthal said it is too early to harvest the plants to use, but she hopes by next year the district can start to incorporate some of the plants into school lunches.

Bowring said he loves to cook and was searching for a cucumber to use in mango salsa for his mother on Mother’s Day. He said he likes tending the garden to see food he might use later.

With help from Principal Heather Wilson, fifth-graders Lydia Bowen, left, and Anni Morris tie old computer discs onto string Thursday to make a bird-deterring device during an outdoor class at the Windsor Elementary School garden. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal Buy this Photo

“I really like to cook,” Bowring said. “I like to dig up the stuff and planting it in the garden.”

The students agreed they like to be outside to learn, although one, Bruce Grosjean, said he enjoys gardening but “hates the bugs.”

Blumenthal said she starts by teaching students the basics, such as growing bean sprouts. Using recycled lunch containers, students plant their seeds in the dirt. When the plants get big enough, Blumenthal will help students transfer them to the garden, or they can take them home to their families.

Fifth-graders visit the garden and learn from Blumenthal as part of their science lesson. She calls it “sneaky teaching” because most of the students do not realize they are learning when they are outside and having fun.

“I think it’s important to show them how their food is growing,” Blumenthal said. “Anyone can do it. You don’t need fancy tools. We use the lunch containers. It’s very tangible and teaches them math, science, even English and history by being outside. I think that’s an amazing quality.”

Rebekah Brockway, left, and her fifth-grade class listen Thursday as Maggie Blumenthal tells students about the day’s projects during an outdoor class at the Windsor Elementary School garden. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal Buy this Photo

St. Onge said the outdoor lessons align perfectly with the teaching curriculum.

“It’s all about understanding natural resources,” she said.

St. Onge said students in the past were able to take a field trip to Tanglewood, a 2.5-mile loop trail near Lincolnville, but are not able to do so now because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Through the garden, St. Onge said, they are able to learn most of the same things.

When the students leave for summer recess in the middle of June, Blumenthal will stay behind to tend to the garden. Her goal — and what she wanted to start last year, but could not because of the coronavirus pandemic — is to create a community garden.

Blumenthal said some families have already received early harvest herbs from the garden.

“I would like to have a stewardship where people could come weekly and tend the garden,” she said.

Windsor Elementary Principal Heather Wilson said the school has big plans for the garden.

With help from the community, a gazebo and concrete slabs are planned to turn the area into an outdoor classroom. Today, students sit on tree stumps as they learn.

“The kids are at the height of their interests,” Wilson said. “As they get older, and if you don’t push them with their interests, it can go away. We want to capture it and keep their interest with this.”


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