A local learning center is proving you’re never too young to start learning about growing your own food.
The 60 infants and preschoolers at Rollins Child Development Center have spent their spring and summer helping to grow and harvest fruits, vegetables and herbs as part of a garden-to-table program that has provided produce for the center as well as its families.
“Everyone associated with Rollins Child Development understands the importance of human brain development from birth through 5 years old,” Program Coordinator Molly Collins said. “The ongoing garden-to-table project that we are developing educates our students, their families and the community about the connection between good nutrition, family well-being and a successful education.”
The teachers and staff members “continuously strive to make our students aware of the growing cycle and the science of growing plants,” Collins said.
“In 2014, one year after our opening, the students created and planted several small raised beds using landscaping timbers,” she said. “The garden excited the children to such a degree that in 2016, we decided to expand the project and really make the garden a 10th classroom for our students and families to experience.”
The 70-foot-by-36-foot garden was installed this spring, primarily by parent volunteers, and students have been “involved in every aspect from planting to harvesting vegetables to be prepared by our chef,” Collins said.
“Even the infant class visits the garden regularly to ‘play in the dirt’ and experience the garden firsthand,” she said.
The school believes its students “learn best through sensory activities that stimulate the mind and benefit the body through exercise and good nutrition,” Collins said.
“Our learning garden provides a vast number of learning opportunities,” she said. “For example, students have created rain gauges, recorded science journals to track growth and yield, created recipes [and] taken pictures of the plants as they grow. The teachers incorporate the garden in their daily lesson plans and see this space as an extension of their classroom.”
The garden also has “presented opportunities to engage the families of our students,” she said.
“Parents helped install the garden, and cooking classes with our school chef are planned to encourage home-cooking and educate about nutrition,” she said.
In April, the center contracted Phil Aplin, a Cartersville landscape architect/designer and a Bartow County Master Gardener, to build the infrastructure for the garden, Collins said.
“The area was graded; a water supply was brought to the site for irrigation; and a fence was installed,” she said. “He also designed the garden layout.”
Aplin said he enjoys designing things, “especially for something as great as the Rollins Child Development Center.”
“What could be better than getting [the kids] out there and letting them get dirty and then having something that was the result of getting dirty?” he said. “[The teachers] always take the kids out to and around the garden, a couple of times a day sometimes, and they got to plant plants.”
Once this phase of the project had been completed, “parents, staff and community volunteers took the reigns,” Collins said.
“Beginning May 6, 2017, and continuing for six successive Saturdays, 35 parents, staff and members of the community volunteered 385 hours of labor to complete the installation of the garden,” she said. “Raised beds were built and installed; dirt and gravel were placed in growing beds and pathways.”
Finally on June 10, the entire school participated in planting annuals and perennials in 19 raised growing beds.
“While all the plants are aesthetically pleasing, nothing is purely ornamental,” Collins said. “We have apple trees, asparagus, cilantro, basil, rosemary, blueberry bushes, tomatoes, zucchini and yellow squash, cantaloupe, green peppers, sweet potatoes, eggplant and bush beans. The focal point is a strawberry ‘fountain.’”
She added community partners Super-Sod, Elite Stone and Cornerstone Demolition and Grading made “significant in-kind donations that made this project possible,” and Taylor’s Farm Supply of Cartersville donated the majority of the seeds and plants.
The students and teachers have enjoyed spending time in the garden, even when they were working, according to Collins.
“Surprisingly, the students really enjoy the process of weeding the garden,” she said. “‘Look at all the big roots, Miss Molly!’ is something I hear all the time. They are so proud when they take home a Ziploc bag full of basil and cilantro along with a recipe either created by the students or supplied by our chef.”
While the garden has had a “steady yield throughout the summer,” Collins said they’re having “the most success with our yellow and zucchini squash.”
“Our cilantro and basil are also very successful,” she said. “Basil chicken has become a staple lunch item from our kitchen.”
Some of the produce has been prepared “by our amazing kitchen” for school lunches, Collins said.
“Our nutrition program provides a varied menu to our students,” she said. “The children are very proud when they find out that something they help produce actually comes to their table for lunch. The teachers inform the students what has come out of the garden. One student in our [3-year-old] preschool class said to me, ‘We grew that from the dirt in our garden!’”
The crops that aren’t used for school lunches are made available to the parents through the school’s farmers market, she added.
While the summer growing season will be drawing to a close soon, the school garden’s growing season will continue.
“Our garden will be tended and yield a crop all year,” Collins said. “The children have been tasked to make a project out of finding out what can grow in the cold weather and when it should be planted. I know we will produce winter greens and, hopefully, pumpkins. This is a learning project for adults and students alike.”
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