Encouraging outdoor instruction in Albany schools

We submitted the following to an Albany school district survey about re-opening schools in September.

The Vegetable Project, a volunteer tax-exempt nonprofit organization that has led garden programming at Myers Middle School since 2009 and at Albany High School Continue reading

The dirty secret about weeding: it never ends

The dirty secret about weeding, as Hudson Valley garden writer Margaret Roach put it in a New York Times piece back in the spring, is that it never ends.

“The most expert organic gardeners — those of us who eschew the use of chemicals — have no tricks to make weeds disappear. Vigilance is key, starting with the ability to recognize the earliest signs of infestation, including what the weed looks like as a seedling, and then acting quickly and repeatedly. Yes, we use mulch, perhaps with a layer of newsprint or cardboard beneath that might slow some opponents. But most of all, we weed.”

So it seems fitting to note the arrival of one that we struggle with at both Myers Middle School and Albany High School year after year. The plant in the accompanying picture, with the small tuft of yellow at the center of its flower, surrounded by white petals, is Galinsoga ciliate. And unless we do better than we usually do, we’ll soon be overrun by it.

As pests go, it’s not the worst. It’s easy to pull. But it spreads and spreads and spreads, mainly by making and dropping a million seeds. So please think of us when you’re considering where you might lend a hand. And remember, there are many ways to participate in and contribute to the Vegetable Project. Our lives will be better if we can keep up with removing the plant as flowers form, the biological step before making seeds.

–Bill Stoneman

Disrupted mowing for the good of teaching

The space around our garden at Myers Middle School is quite a bit shaggier than it was when we started nearly 11 years ago, as accompanying then and now pictures show. Partly, that’s because the building was pretty new then and everything was mowed down for its construction. But also, mowing everything down seems like the default maintenance practice at Albany schools. And maybe we disrupted it, without really intending to. And that has really allowed plants to grow.

Now that we have noticed, it seems like a pretty good change – not as a matter of esthetics, but for the sake of teaching and learning, for the sake of creating reason and opportunity to explore the nearby outdoor world and for the sake of harnessing the power of nature to support healthy lives and healthy adolescent development. Most students in New York take a class called “living environment.” And it’s typically taught without setting foot in a real living environment. Increasingly, however, the Myers schoolyard offers opportunities to actually explore ecosystems and food webs, observe and measure environmental succession, put hands on invasive species and measure their impact.

Seems to us like a pretty good complement to Smart Board lessons.

So take a look toward the fence to the west of the garden area. A few lonesome and spindly ash trees, which offer yet more to explore due to the invasive emerald ash borer that’s threatening their existence, stood there when we broke ground. They have grown large since then, as phragmites have moved in to the north of them. And our footbridge looked like it was in the middle of a vast open expanse early on. It’s nearly hidden now by willow trees.

Our big challenge is drawing attention to these opportunities and encouraging teachers to avail themselves of them. We do not get the sense that these loom large in teacher training programs on in state Education Department curriculum wizards’ offices. Compelling research, however, suggests that contact with nature supports health, which would seem like a pretty important foundation for learning.

–Bill Stoneman

Outdoor classroom, now more than ever

We at the Vegetable Project have been saying for some time that an outdoor classroom would be a wonderful addition at Stephen and Harriet Myers Middle School in Albany. We have also mentioned now and then that an outdoor classroom would be a wonderful addition at just about every other school. We have cited serious academic research that finds health benefits, physical and mental, in exposure to nature. We have held up research that compares how students did in traditional indoor lessons after an outdoor lesson with after Continue reading

Nature intrudes, for worse and better

Okay, there’s nothing Biblical about the plagues in our gardens in recent weeks. But a succession of troubles makes it tempting to wonder if we’re being punished for something. Plants have disappeared, have been uprooted and show signs that garden visitors think we’re sharing!

So we have been scrambling to configure means of keeping pests out. But before we spend too much time wringing hands and lamenting our bad fortune, it’s worth mentioning that some of the probable explanation actually reflects a positive development from an educational point of view.

A small measure of wildlife has returned to the space where Myers Middle Continue reading

Teaching opportunities come alive outdoors

If our science teacher friends, especially at Myers Middle School in Albany, could stand a classroom lesson suggestion from the Vegetable Project folks, it would be to get classes outside, find your way to the milkweed plants in the accompanying picture, share with students the story of the amazing annual monarch butterfly journey and create a project around documenting Monarch sightings. Maybe even offer extra credit for collaborating with the Vegetable Project to put a variety of flowering plants Continue reading

Mission matters now more than ever

With a mission that includes harnessing the power of exposure to nature, the Vegetable Project proposes to develop an outdoor classroom at Stephen and Harriet Myers Middle School in Albany. We work with teachers to bring classes outside from time to time. We hold up scholarly research as we come across it that explains how exposure to nature contributes to wellbeing. And of course, we encourage kids – gently – to experience working their hands in soil and to experience the taste of freshly harvested produce.

At a time when school buildings are closed and students and educators are Continue reading

Life lessons in 3-inch pot full of tomato starts

There is a lesson in the overstuffed three-inch container in the accompanying photograph. It may not fulfill any of the official New York State Education Department learning standards or make an appearance in official state curriculum. It’s next to impossible to imagine squeezing anything about it into a standardized test. And still, we would submit that the lesson is among the most important that we can share with our students.

Of course the lesson, like all the hands-on learning opportunities the Continue reading

Start lifelong learning in the garden with pea shoots

Long-time friends of the Vegetable Project know we get a kick out of sharing the art (ha!) of growing pea shoots with everyone we meet. It’s the closest thing we know of to instant gratification in the world of growing edibles. Start seeds today and you’ll be pinching stems and popping them in your mouth in 10 or 12 days. And they’re delicious.

So please indulge us as we revisit the subject: In this time of social isolation, we Continue reading

Gardening makes sense at times like nothing else

Christine Smith, who leads the Seadleaf community garden organization in Lexington, Ky., wrote last week, “In times of fear and confusion, the only thing that makes sense to me is to get outside and garden.”

Of course, she’s not the only one to express such a sentiment. Seed companies across the country say they’re overwhelmed with business. So clearly droves of people have similar ideas as the coronavirus pandemic continues to spread. Smith, however, is particularly eloquent in explaining Continue reading