Wilton may no longer be reflective of its agrarian past, but the town’s middle school is renewing local interest in teaching Wilton school children about crops, gardening and small-scale farming, thanks to two enterprising teachers.
Within the last few years, Middlebrook teachers Heather Priest and Will Mathews have introduced gardening into the school’s curriculum. From cannellini beans to butternut squash, red bell peppers to cauliflower, there’s a wide range of vegetables now being grown on the school grounds by these two educators, with the help of their students.
This program started germinating in 2008, when Mathews took advantage of empty space in one Middlebrook courtyard and created small garden plots. Priest expanded on that idea upon her arrival as the new family consumer science teacher three years ago. At the time, the school board asked her what she would change about the family consumer science program. Her main goal, she says, was to implement a positive, concrete agenda that students would walk away with after completing the three year program, something that she says, “…would really round them out, and give them more of an experience.” With the hopes of growing the garden in the school anyway, she came up with the logical idea to have the taking care of the garden be the learning itself.
Priest developed a curriculum that would also tie in composting and sustainable living, and then she and Mathews took their brainchild to the Board of Education. After the board green-lit their proposal the green-thumbed tag team hit the ground running, researching different programs and starting test gardens.
Priest says she was inspired for the program from her time teaching programming at Wilton’s Ambler Farm. There, she and her students would cook meals from the food they had grown in Ambler’s fields. “We would literally walk out into the fields and pick our food and then come back and cook it. I really wanted the [Middlebrook] students to have that same experience.” Once the foundation of the program was established, Priest delved into teaching students on how to properly plant seeds, harvest, and close down beds.
However the program developed into something so much more than just a simple gardening class. Woven into it was a bigger life lesson to create awareness for natural sustainability, to understand food from the perspective of producers rather than just consumers, and to balance growth with the overall concept of waste.
“It’s becoming apparent that as we grow up and if we don’t understand where our food comes from, how it’s grown, and what goes into the actual processing of it, in the future we are going to have a lot of problems,” Priest says.
It’s a timely topic for her students who will become the consumers of tomorrow in a country that, according to the Washington Post, wastes about $165 billion dollars a year in food. The example set by Priest and Mathews for their students aims to help show initiative to try to reverse the trend.
The class and the garden it’s growing is truly multipurpose. Not only does the family consumer science program utilize the garden space, but science classes can as well. Existing and new clubs can take advantage of using the garden, and students can find further inspiration and discover new interests there. That, say the two teachers, is one of the garden’s other main goals–in addition to creating a consciousness around the food we consume, they also hope to motivate kids for future careers in food-related occupations.
“I think being in a class like this, these kids have the abilities to become entrepreneurs in the future,” Priest says. She believes that having kids experience planting and growing could one day lead to more effective technologies in the food industry. With the multitude of occupations in food management, biodiversity, and genetically modified foods programs, the class could be the inspirational jumping off point for a lot of students’ future jobs.
Not only is this program creating awareness, but it is also something that the kids truly enjoy. “When they pick something out of the ground, the utter joy that is on their face is just hysterical,” Priest says, noting it’s something very relatable–watching something that you have helped create to grow and flourish is a unique feeling. Whether it’s raising a child or simply planting and growing a sweet potato, being able to witness the evolution of what you created is truly incomparable.
What began as a few test beds and an idea has ultimately flourished into a thriving cornucopia of soil beds and bumper crops of vegetables. What’s delicious to think about is that the metaphorical seedling of the gardening program, planted by Priest and Matthews, will continue to grow into something larger, as the two teachers have begun planning to install a greenhouse in the Middlebrook courtyard, enabling them to extend growing year-round–and letting them continue to feed young, growing minds.