LIVINGSTON, NJ - Students at Mount Pleasant Elementary School are discovering just how much there is to learn about how things grow. They’ve dirtied hands, planted seeds, and tended their rainbow-themed plots to harvest some healthy treats that don’t come from the supermarket.
Inspired by the work of the Livingston Township Food Day Committee, the school has embraced the concepts of healthy eating and gardening in an effort to help children understand where food comes from, to excite them about trying new fruits and vegetables, and to let them have a hands-on gardening experience.
Garden organizers, including MPE parent volunteers and the MPE School Counselor, Jennifer Kelner, knew they had to start small with their garden idea in order to build support for the MPE garden and secure resources. But things moved quicker than anticipated and the results exceeded their expectations.
Gardening organizers were able to secure a grant from the Liberty Hall Museum Community Farmers Market and a generous lumber donation from Kuiken Brothers. Plans quickly expanded as students, teachers and Principal Natalie Topylko embraced the garden concept.
The Rothfeld, Doherty and Kelner families worked one evening to build six raised beds located in the school courtyard, which is thankfully protected by four walls. Expert Landscapers generously volunteered their time to clean up the garden space, move soil and prepare the garden beds. And just last week Durante Landscaping came and volunteered to do additional clean up work.
Students voted on the choices to grow, picking a rainbow theme for the inaugural year of gardening. Garden organizers picked vegetables and fruits based off what grows well in NJ and what would fit in the assigned color beds.
Jodi Rothfeld, an MPE parent who is working on earning her Master Gardener status through Rutgers, worked with Mrs. Kelner to plan curriculum and lead classes in garden activities.
“Jodi Rothfeld and Jennifer Kelner brought our ideas to life in a way that really created value for students and their parent school partnership helped launch this garden,” said Stacey Rubinstein, a parent volunteer and garden organizer.
Many classes were involved in planting seedlings as tomato, eggplant, basil, corn, chives, peas, and yellow squash seeds were planted in recycled materials, which were donated by students, to grow into seedlings. Seedlings were then transplanted into bigger “homes” and many transplants were planted into their colored garden bed.
“This volunteer opportunity has been a labor of love. The process has been exciting and fun, and has served as a learning opportunity for all involved. Students have learned about the stages of a plant, what a plant needs to survive, why our space is special. We have been so fortunate that our school leadership and teachers realize the learning opportunities that exist in gardening,” Mrs. Rothfeld said.
“Students have had to work together and are beginning to gain a better understanding of the word community through garden activities,” Mrs. Kelner said. “The MPE teachers have been very excited about this project. They jumped on board and have used the garden as a means to teach the life cycle of plants and healthy eating.”
“My favorite part of this project has been working with the kids and teachers and to see their excitement about learning something new and gardening,” Mrs. Rothfeld said. “While many students and teachers never gardened before and it has been wonderful to see them become open to the idea. Those with experience have been willing to share and help others. And all appreciated the change of pace from the classroom and the opportunity to be outdoors and get their hands dirty. It's going to be really exciting when they get to make this space even more their own by extending our growing season into spring, fall and winter months.”
The MPE garden has blossomed into a real community garden, which has been enjoyed by more than 20 MPE families throughout the summer who helped maintain the garden by watering, weeding and harvesting.
Robby Doherty said he enjoyed gardening over the summer. “It’s fun to work in the garden and I get to bring home food to try.” His favorite was the blueberries because he was able to pick and snack while watering the other plants.
“This project is so important as it has helped show my kids where food really comes from and it has encouraged my boys to try new foods. They are very aware of healthy choices and the garden has helped,” said Robby’s mom, Linda.
The Coleman family also enjoyed watching the vegetables grow each week, especially the corn, and they have enjoyed connecting with other families through the garden. First grader Jenya Narang added, "I have lots of fun watering the growing plants, weeding and picking the eggplants. It feels like our own garden in our backyard. And I love looking at ducklings playing in the garden."
To see more photos of the garden, click HERE.