Opportunity to pitch in teaching about environment

Invasive purple loosestrife has been growing near our garden at Myers Middle School since at least 2017. It’s been outcompeting native wetland plants, like cattails, in the Northeast for at least a couple of decades and is believed to have reached North America from its home in Central Europe as long ago as the early 1800s. So, we have been thinking about how to leverage trying to remove the plant for educational gain for quite a few years.

The Vegetable Project builds teaching and learning around doing and touching and tasting and experiencing because we know that all of that makes a much greater impression than teachers standing in front of a classroom ever can. And seeking to manage an attractive but unfortunately harmful plant in our midst seemed to offer an excellent opportunity.

Purple loosestrife, however, is easiest to identify when it’s in bloom, in August, when few students are around the school. But we were offered time this summer during the school’s Transition Camp for incoming sixth graders to put something together. And we came up with what we’re calling an Invasive Species Workshop, to be held next week, on Wednesday and Thursday, Aug. 23 and 24, involving identifying, mapping and removing the plant. We hope, really expect, to pique interest in the environment and raise awareness of our role in caring for it.

Want to get involved? The more team members we have talking with kids about what invasives are – nonnative plants or animals that disrupt functioning ecosystems – and why we should be concerned about them the better (and we’ll make sure you’re well prepared to have those conversations). Please reach out at [email protected] or 518-728-6799.

–Bill Stoneman

Digging in the dirt for academic performance

So, the existential question we’re occasionally asked goes something like this: “Do you think digging in the dirt is really going to help those kids learn readin’, writin’ and ‘rithmetic?”

And serious academic research reinforces our own anecdotal sense of things in saying that exposure to nature contributes mightily to mental health and resilience and strengthens attention and reduces stress, all of which helps children learn.

That sounds important enough to us here at the Vegetable Project to keep doing everything we can to get kids outside and then building teaching and learning around doing and touching and tasting and experiencing.

Goodness knows, sitting at desks in traditional classrooms is not working for many, many students.

“It is time to take nature seriously,” write university researchers in Frontiers in Psychology, “as a resource for learning and development. It is time to bring nature and nature-based pedagogy into formal education – to expand existing, isolated efforts into increasingly mainstream practices.”

We wrapped up another year of after school Garden Club at Stephen and Harriett Myers Middle School on Tuesday of last week. Please join us for the summer edition, Wednesday evenings from 6 to 8 p.m., starting this week, on the 14th! Children, adults, friends, connected with Myers or not.

–Bill Stoneman

Handy links to online watering schedule signup

We want to show volunteers – perhaps you – around before they start to water our school gardens during the summer of 2023. But then we would be grateful if volunteers would use our online signup tool to let us know when we can plan around their commitment. Please click here to sign up to water at Albany High School. Please click here to sign up for Myers Middle School. And please click here to sign up for North Albany Middle School.

But again, please reach out first, at [email protected], so that we can arrange to show you the ropes. And please know that you will be making a big difference when you take a couple of watering shifts beyond your orientation in this volunteer group’s ability to head into the new school year with gardens teaming with teaching and learning opportunities.

–Bill Stoneman

Help with watering would be great contribution

Want to lend a hand in the Vegetable Project’s gardens on your own schedule? Won’t you please consider helping to water at Albany High School and/or Myers Middle School from now until early October. Claim a week. Or maybe a day of the week for the summer. Or days that work for you. Either way, you’ll make a big difference in this volunteer group’s ability to head into the new school year with gardens teaming with teaching and learning opportunities.

Please reach out at [email protected] to arrange a garden walkaround and to learn the ropes with one of our veterans. Or go ahead sign up for days at Albany High here and at Myers here. We will get in touch and plan to meet you to get you started. We won’t leave you alone until you are ready. But please understand, the contribution only begins to make a difference as you start working independently and reliably.

Many thanks for 13 years of great support for our efforts.

–Bill Stoneman

Evening in the Garden winning raffle ticket numbers

Thank you to everyone who joined the Vegetable Project folks for an Evening in the Garden at Albany High School yesterday, Tuesday, May 9. And many many thanks to everyone on the VegProj team for making it a lovely evening. We are grateful for all your support for our efforts, which come in many different forms.

Then, particularly important business for several individuals, we picked winning tickets for raffles at the event after the holders of those tickets likely left And we hope that we can reach you and arrange to give you what you won. If your numbers match those listed below, please email at [email protected].

Mother’s Day Treat Yourself basket – 060037

Wine & Smile basket – 060047

Grow on You – 060097

Summer Beer basket – 060191

Milk & Cookies basket – 060200

The Navona Gift Card – 060044

50/50 raffle, worth $51.50 to the winner – 744002

— Bill Stoneman

Improving greenhouse project next time around

Satisfying as it was to bring immeasurable excitement to 39 classes and one after-school program by building 750 miniature greenhouses with 750 Albany students from late February 2023 to late March, the initiative is a work in progress – as perhaps all ambitious undertakings should remain long after launching. So here are a few notes to ourselves to keep in mind as we think about trying again in less than a year:

We spotted germination of seeds sown inside our milk jug miniature greenhouses early, on March 19. We saw considerably more by April 1 and quite a bit more than that by April 10. And we opened a few up on April 11 and potted up some plants and moved others to garden soil. And we could open many more now, on April 17. This serves to remind that we ought to be prepared to start caring for live plants much earlier than we were thinking this year. Most of all, that means planning with our teacher partners to ensure that the insides of the jugs stay well hydrated during warm dry patches and even over weekends and school vacations. It also means some serious conversations with the same teacher partners about how much more meaningful educational tools the project will be when they and their students and perhaps their colleagues play a meaningful role in caring for live plants.

Vegetable Project volunteers have the enthusiasm to pack more action into each class period of making greenhouses than we suspect most school district education leaders even understand is happening in the classrooms and cafeterias and hallways. It is in everyone’s interest, however, that we redouble efforts to ensure that our teacher partners in fact are partners in pulling off what feels at times like a high wire act, as opposed to appreciative recipients of the fruits of our labor. This likely means asking teacher partners to think out loud with us many months before February about how they can work toward taking more responsibility for making this activity work, so that the volunteers can bring it to more of their counterparts around the school district and cook up more hands-on learning opportunity ideas.

Frantically turning plastic gallon milk jugs into miniature greenhouses within class periods, meaning sometimes in 40 minutes, would likely mean so much more to students if we introduce them to the amazing potential packed into seeds a week or more before the building activity. This likely means germinating seeds on paper towels inside plastic bags and in other settings so that students can see day by day what happens when moisture penetrates a seed coating. And it likely means exploring the physical structure of seeds as is only possible when every student has the opportunity to dissect large specimens with enough helping hands nearby to provide ample one-to-one assistance. We are committed to developing this new phase of the project well before February 2024. But we’ll certainly benefit from partnership with teachers through rounds of pilot testing of ideas.

We have our work cut out for ourselves. Building more teaching and learning around doing and touching and tasting and experiencing, however, is bound to make a meaningful difference in the lives of students who are not thriving today.

–Bill Stoneman

Won’t want to miss Evening in the Garden

The Vegetable Project’s sixth annual Evening in the Garden will be at Albany High School this year, on Tuesday, May 9 (rain date the following day, Wednesday, May 10). And we sure are looking forward to showing you what is growing, sharing with you about our work to create hands-on learning opportunities, offering a few hands-on learning opportunities right there and introducing you to knowledgeable growers who are eager to share their expertise.

And if that doesn’t sound like enough, you’ll enjoy the sounds of student musicians and to sample tastes from some of our favorite local restaurants and food businesses – Honest Weight Food Co-op, Cardona’s Market, Bountiful Bread, Allie B’s Cozy Kitchen and more.

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Many learning opportunities in classroom project

Arugula seeds placed in a miniature greenhouse at Albany High School in late February have germinated already. So, if nothing else, we learn that these are seeds that start in pretty cool weather. But about 500 individual creations into the 2023 edition of the Vegetable Project’s Milk Jug Miniature Greenhouse Project, we can confidently make a few other observations.

  • It is possible to get students outside, even in the winter, even if only to set finished products out where they belong.
  • Students are really energized by hands-on learning opportunities.
  • Teachers are also pretty excited by the commotion and mess that we bring into their classrooms.
  • We need to make some changes in how we orchestrate all of this before we commit to doing it again next year.

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Buying seeds supports Vegetable Project work

Start your own garden this year, maybe fill a couple of planters on the front porch, or perhaps add a few square feet to that special space – for the beauty you’ll create, for the hope you’ll inspire and for the stewardship of our environment you’ll provide. And please support the Vegetable Project when you do by buying High Mowing Organic Seeds from us from now until Friday, March 24.

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Vital link between gardening and wellbeing

Sue Stuart-Smith, an English psychiatrist, begins a long and thoughtful exploration of gardening’s amazing connection with human wellbeing with a story about her grandfather, whose brutal treatment as a Turkish prisoner during World War I left him a shell of the young man who joined the Royal Navy early in the war. So malnourished that he weighed just 80 pounds when he made his way back home, doctors said he likely only had a few months to live.

As Stuart-Smith tells it, her grandfather’s yearslong physical and mental recovery begins with a horticulture program that was organized with the “aim of rehabilitating ex-servicemen who had been damaged by the conflict.”

Stuart-Smith continues in her 2020 publication, The Well-Gardened Mind: The Restorative Power of Nature, to cast gardening specifically and exposure to nature more generally in a central role in scores of stories that today we might say called for trauma-informed care – involving war, mental illness, social isolation, big American prisons and yes, even in urban schools serving poor communities (in England). Time and again, opportunities to spend time in soothing environments, to nurture living things and to work hands in soil seem to support troubled people in getting their feet on the ground.

“Over the course of evolution,” Stuart-Smith explains, “we have been primed to function best in response to various aspects of the natural world. This includes how much sunlight we get, the kind of microbes we are exposed to, the amount of green vegetation around us and the type of exercise we take.”

Reflecting the experience of a mental health professional and a physician steeped in the science of how the brain functions, Stuart-Smith is compelling when she writes, “One of the strongest findings in research across the last few decades has been the extent to which gardening boosts mood and self-esteem and helps alleviate depression and anxiety.”

At a time when people with professional interest in healthy development of children, from public school educators to the U.S. surgeon general, are expressing grave concern about childhood and adolescent depression and anxiety levels, Stuart-Smith offers urgently important insight. Our tiny school gardening program recognizes the value of getting kids outdoors. The local school district, which does occasionally talk about trauma-informed care? College and university teacher training programs? The state and federal education departments?

Well, not that we have noticed.

We have been waving around Richard Louv’s 2005 book, Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder, every chance we get, trying to make the case that the school world would do itself an enormous favor by embracing its central tenet – that more exposure to nature would do so much good for people, and certainly including young people. Stuart-Smith’s work is the natural bookend to this masterpiece.

Stuart-Smith focuses on gardening, while Louv, a journalist, emphasizes being outdoors. They draw on different personal experiences and different research. But they reinforce one another wonderfully in explaining that human beings are programmed by evolution to spend so much more time outdoors and amid nature than they typically do now. And they would be healthier, socially, emotionally, cognitively and physically, if they had more contact with nature today.

This isn’t about the Covid-19 pandemic. Both were written before most of us knew word coronavirus. This isn’t about handheld devices with alluring screens, though both authors recognize today’s technology separates us from nature more than ever. This is more about the electric lightbulb and industrial production of food and clothing and shelter, all of which sent us indoors more than ever before.

Shouldn’t educators and others responsible for the care and nurturing of our you be thinking about gardening’s amazing connection with human wellbeing? We think so.

 – Bill Stoneman