Garden Lessons @ McDevitt Middle School

Radishes germinating

Sixth-grade students in Ms. Turkington and Mr. Maillis’ math Cluster Challenges have been active participants in preparing the school’s garden space for the warmer days ahead of us. In the classroom, students helped by starting seed trays with greens such as arugula, a few varieties of red-leaf lettuces, and Swiss chard, as well as a few kohlrabi for some more exotic-looking fare (food).

Outside, students cultivated and planted five of the garden beds with peas, carrots, and radishes. Just like those we planted at Stanley, the peas and radishes should be ready for harvesting in May, but little germination (the transition from seed to sprout) has taken place yet, with exception of the radishes. We’ll keep our eyes on these beds in the coming weeks for signs of new growth.

After helping clear out leftover crops from the autumn season, student pitched two miniature greenhouse tents on one of the two raised beds on the property. Interested in maximizing (getting the most out of something) our use of garden space, the students measured the square-footage inside of each tent to see how much salad mix we should plant. The seed packet indicated that approximately 60 seeds should be planted in every foot-long 2-4″ wide-band, with each band being about 6 inches apart (now that’s a mouth-full!); students measured a total in-tent square-footage of about 66 square feet (36 inches x 22 inches = 792 inches/12 inches = 66 square feet). Their measurements and calculations, including the spacing between each band, suggested that a planting of three 3-4 inch bands of salad mix, approximately 5 inches apart, should yield us maximum greens. But how many seeds does that equate to? About 540 (9 foot-long bands x 60 seeds) of them! Since planting the seeds two weeks ago, we’ve noticed some germination of the green-leaf varieties included in the mix.

Inside the tent / stages of growth

"Can I have another scoop of poop?"

Another aspect of our recent garden work includes an informal experiment. Students in Ms. Turkington’s class planted their greens without using any sort of soil amendment (something added to the soil to improve plant growth or health, like fertilizer or compost), while students in Mr. Maillis’ class sprinkled a good amount of red wiggler worm castings (also known as vermicompost or worm poop), collected from our very-own bins, on top of their seeds. From our work with the science Clusters, we discovered that worm castings are even more nutrient-rich than typical compost, which makes us wonder: will these greens grow faster or larger? Will they be more flavorful or more healthy? While we may not find answers to all of these questions, we’ll keep an eye on both tents to see what becomes of our two plantings.


Images by Rebekah Carter (2011).

Whole wheat pita pizzas @ the Chill Zone

For this past weekend’s Chill Zone, the kids prepared themselves mini toaster oven pizzas with leftover whole wheat pita bread rounds from our prior session, tomato sauce, shredded mozzarella, oregano, red pepper flakes (for those who like a little spice), and chopped up veggies like green bell pepper and onion.

Using a toaster oven did pose some challenges. Because of its small size, our oven could only fit one pizza at a time, requiring much patience amongst the kids.

Beyond this, we had the minor issue of some pizzas sticking to the baking sheet. For those looking to make this snack at home, we suggest either 1) pre-baking a pita round, lightly brushed with olive oil (results in a crispier crust) or 2) using a non-stick spray on the pan. A little sprinkle of cornmeal on the pan can help prevent sticking, too, since it slightly “lifts” the crust off the pan.

A simple yet classic snack idea that seemed to go over quite well with the bunch!


Images by Rebekah Carter (2011).

Learning the Parts of a Plant

Getting our hands dirty

Cold winds and a recent snow shower didn’t deter Stanley Garden Club from meeting last week and getting even more seeds planted, though the chilly temperature did keep us indoors. We got our hands dirty as we added some water to the dried up potting soil, creating the moist foundation needed for seed germination. We then planted beets, eggplant, peppers, and both red and yellow onions. There were several different kinds of beets, including golden beets, which were easily identifiable by their golden seeds- how convenient! We will definitely have to do some beet taste-testing come harvest time. Will the golden and red varieties taste similar or different?

Because of the cold weather and the fragility of new seeds, we planted these tender vegetables in plug trays. A plug tray is great for the very first stage of a plant’s life; it contains many rows of individual cells which help keep young roots separated. However, once the plants begin to grow we will have to transplant them from the plug trays into bigger trays, and then into the garden beds outside.

Image via

After washing our hands off we had a great discussion about the different parts of a plant, and how vegetables can come from just about any one (or more) of these parts. Important features of any plant include the root, stem, leaf, and flower (which develops into the fruit, which contains the seeds- two more plant parts!). Each part has a distinct and important role. Roots absorb water and nutrients from the soil and keep the plant from blowing away. Plants can have either a taproot system, in which there is one primary thick root that goes straight down into the ground, or a fibrous root system, in which there are many thin roots spreading out in every direction. Carrots and beets are examples of root vegetables, or more specifically, taproot vegetables.

Root veggies

The water and nutrients taken up by the roots are then transported up through the stem. But the stem is not just a way for the plant to move around nutrients; it also serves the important role of bringing the leaves closer to the sun. Unlike animals that must find their food, plants make their own food by using energy from sunlight to convert carbon dioxide into glucose (a type of sugar) while also releasing oxygen into the atmosphere. This process is called photosynthesis. The leaves of the plant are the primary actors in photosynthesis; they hold the most chlorophyll (green pigment) that is necessary for the plant to absorb sunlight. While all plants have leaves, some examples of leafy vegetables (crops we grow specifically for their leaves) include lettuce and spinach.

Overwintered spinach @ McDevitt

Another key part of a plant- but something we don’t usually associate with vegetables- is the flower. One example of a flower vegetable is, believe it or not, broccoli! Flowers are attractive to insects like butterflies and bees; enticed by their color and scent, these organisms feed on the flower’s nectar and, without knowing it, transfer pollen so that fertilization (when the sperm and ovules, or eggs, join together) can occur. A protective shell (the fruit) then grows around the developing seeds. Some plants make this fleshy layer extra delicious to encourage animals to eat the fruit and spread its seeds after defecating, which is simply a fancy word for pooping! Many foods we consider vegetables in culinary (cooking) terms are technically fruits because they contain seeds*. Some fruits we typically call “vegetables” include cucumbers, tomatoes, and squashes.

Cece & Rebekah

*Botanically speaking, a fruit is the fleshy part of a flowering plant derived from the fertilization of the plant’s ovaries; however, it is more generally considered to be the part of a plant that holds its seeds, such as bean pods.

The plant parts diagram is used via All other images created by Rebekah Carter (2011).

Food Memories and Family Dinners

Read our latest column in the Waltham News Tribune!  “Food Memories and Family Dinners,” by Leslie Glynn, appeared in the Waltham News Tribune on March 22, 2011.  Leslie describes the enjoyment of food and family time, and the importance of keeping these rituals alive today.  She also shares one of her family recipes, “Pasta e Fagiole” (Pasta and Beans).

To view the article in the Waltham News Tribune online, please click here.  To download a pdf of the article, please click here.

Vermicomposting @ Brandeis

And now for a quick break from Healthy Waltham’s youth programming for a glimpse into college life at Brandeis University. Although the worm composting unit has just finished at McDevitt Middle School, it’s just now beginning at Brandeis. Through the Brandeis Sustainability Fund, I’ve set up two worm composting bins in Brandeis residence halls (affectionately called dorms). Originally, I wanted to set up bins similar to those we had in the classrooms at McDevitt: simple, inexpensive Rubbermaid bins with holes drilled in for ventilation. However, the Brandeis administration and facility staff decided they would only be comfortable supporting this initiative if we used bins specifically designed for the purpose of vermicomposting. Running with the mentality that any worms are better than no worms, I went ahead and purchased two Worm Factory bins, along with a pound of red wigglers (about 1,000 worms total). These bins include multiple trays; once one try is filled with castings, you can add another fresh tray of food scraps so that the worms will migrate upwards while finished compost from the first tray can be harvested. They also come with spigots for controlling extra moisture that can be used as nutrient-rich compost tea (the liquid portion of compost) in your garden. While both of these features are interesting and helpful, neither are necessary for at-home worm composting.

The bins are now set up on two dormitory floors. How will these bins fare compared to our bins at McDevitt Middle School? Will a more expensive system actually provide any advantages? Check back for updates!


Images by Cecelia Watkins (2011).