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Issue No. 2
February 2012

Growing and Learning 


Redwing Pond House Preschool
Establishing Your School Garden  



This is the time to start planning your school garden, if you haven't done so already.  Here are some resources you might find useful. 


Lincoln School Urban Oaks Allied World
Lincoln School Garden, New Britain, built with assistance from Urban Oaks Farm

If you want to know how many carrots or heads of lettuce you can fit in

a 100 square foot bed, How to Grow More Vegetables by John Jeavons has the answer.  This widely-loved book, now in its 7th edition, is a classic. 

Jeavons has charts and diagrams that are perfect aids for planning how many seeds to buy and how much you can produce from that bed.  He provides possible  yields for beginning, more experienced and master growers.  His diagrams of how to dig, how to transplant and do otherbasic garden operations are very clear.

Last year, Connecticut organic herb grower Sal Gilbertie published Small-Plot, High-Yield Gardening.  He provides clear techniques for maximum production of over 50 popular vegetables.

Both of these books are published by 10 Speed Press.

CR Lawn, founder of Fedco Seeds, said in an interview, "The Garden Primer by Barbara Damrosch gets my vote as the best current how-to garden book for any level from beginner to advanced."  Read the whole interview  for CR's suggestions for the best lettuce and pea varieties and his mature attitude toward what to grow.

Organic Methods

All of these books recommend and teach organic methods.  You want to use organic methods with your students because you don't want them handling toxic pesticides.  I suspect that you understand that it doesn't make sense to put toxic substances on food we want to eat or feed to our children.

But organic methods require more than just not using pesticides.  As you'll learn from any of these books, proper care and preparation of the soil is the key requirement for successful growing.   A soil test is an important part of your planning.  Visit here to learn how to take soil samples and where to send them. Ask for organic recommendations.  (You can learn more about soil at the NOFA Winter Conference on March 3 and at a special workshop at Common Ground High School in New Haven on March 10.)   Tom Rathier, a soil scientists who is the state expert on evaluating and testing soil for heavy metal contamination, will be one of the presenters on March 10.

It is useful to study this definition of organic agriculture from the USDA and talk about it with your students:  "Organic agriculture is an ecological production management system that promotes and enhances biodiversity, biological cycles and soil biological activity. It is based on minimal use of off-farm inputs and on management practices that restore, maintain and enhance ecological harmony. The primary goal of organic agriculture is to optimize the health and productivity of interdependent communities of soil life, plants, animals and people."  From the United States Department of Agriculture's National Organic Standards Board in 1997.

You could also discuss with older students about the ways that organic agriculture and organic care of the land address the three most serious problems with Earth's life support systems.  See this article inNew Scientist to learn more about those problems, climate change, excess nitrogen and rapid loss of biodiversity.

With their principles and methods, good organic gardening and farming store more carbon in the soil as organic matter (both mitigating climate change and providing resilience in the face of big changes in participation patterns).  By making "minimal use of off farm inputs" and avoiding synthetic chemical sources of nitrogen, organic methods avoid  the greenhouse gases that are released when synthetic nitrogen fertilizers are applied.

And, not only does the elimination of chemical nitrogen fertilizers slow down climate change and help preserve soil organic matter, it also avoids adding synthetic nitrogen to a planet that already has twice as much as is natural.  That excess nitrogen encourages weedy growth, insect feeding on plants, more plant diseases and the eutrophication of Long Island Sound and other estuaries. 

Increasing biodiversity is at the heart of organic growing; the loss of biodiversity may be the most serious issue we face.

So by its nature, your organic school garden addresses the most serious environmental problems, while also providing healthy local food and a great context for learning.

As a final note on organic agriculture, the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements  provides these principles for organic agriculture: health, ecology, fairness and care.  

Those are principles we can teach our children.  

I wish you good success in your gardening endeavors this year.  Keep in touch and send photos and stories for the next issue of Growing and Learning.

Bill Duesing

Redwing Pond House Preschool Opens in Ansonia

Redwing hands
RWPH students discover nature 

On a recent January day at Redwing Pond House Preschool in Ansonia, a class of 3- to 5-year-olds went on a hike. As they walked along with their teachers, the children were caught up in the thrill of discovery. They uncovered hickory nuts and acorn "hats" among the leaves and twigs. They were surprised to find out how soft the moss felt under their fingers. They were intrigued to observe the many colors of mushrooms and lichen growing on sticks. And they were intent in their search for frogs by the pond. This was no field trip for this class; this was an ordinary day of learning for them.

Redwing Pond House Preschool, a nature-based preschool situated on the 150-acre grounds of the Ansonia Nature and Recreation Center, opened its doors last month.   Housed in a beautiful building complete with solar panels, geo-thermal heating, and a greenhouse, the preschool is committed to promoting children's love of nature, with a curriculum guided by seasonal events. Director and Head Teacher Jacqueline Lema is excited to be overseeing the new class of eager students.

Redwing Pond House Preschool  

"This school nurtures how children learn naturally - through their curiosity," says Jackie. "They will retain more by doing than by hearing about it."

At Redwing Pond House Preschool discovery through the natural world is, well, natural, because as Jackie s ays, the school is right in the middle of nature.   The pond and all its life is nearby, there are hawks flying in the sky outside, deer wandering through the woods, and all types of plant and animal life just outside the door. And the students can bring nature inside. The school's greenhouse, holds a tank which they can use to bring plants and animals from the grounds inside to study more thoroughly.

Director Jackie Lema with students
Photo: Jeff Spooner 

Working alongside Jackie, teachers Marcy Boyd and Mary Beth Hibson plan to use the surrounding nature as the guiding theme when presenting science, art and music, language and literacy, dramatic play, and other curriculum areas. The students will be outside almost every day. As Jackie likes to say, "There is no bad weather, just bad clothing."

Teacher Mary Beth adds, "Kids at this age are natural scientists. They want to explore and explain the world around them. They rely on and learn from their senses because they can't read or go on a computer."    

While staff and families alike celebrate the school's opening, it took a lot of work to get to this point. Donna Lindgren, Director of the Ansonia Nature Center, has long envisioned a school with a nature-based curriculum on the Center grounds.   This kind of school is important because it connects children to nature. "I am a huge believer in kids growing things. It gets them directly involved with what they eat." This type of education, she says, gets them close to the ground, where they can see, smell, and touch the soil, and all the fascinating things that soil has within it, and where the children can see for themselves how much there is to discover in dirt.

redwing greenhouse
RWPH greenhouse
Photo: Jeff Spooner 

And so in 1994 the Friends of the Ansonia Nature Center (FANCI) formed, as people with this same dream came together to try to make it reality, and began to raise money to establish the school. FANCI's original project was discarded as an old red barn on the Nature Center grounds, which the group had hoped to convert for use as the school house, was determined to be too close to the road. To explore the option of constructing a completely new schoolhouse, FANCI formed a building committee which included members of the Boards of Alderman and Education, FANCI board members, Ansonia Nature Center staff, the director of the Public Works Department, and primary advisor John Adzima, who was a strong and tireless supporter of the preschool up until his recent death.


Redwing classroom
RWPH classroom
Photo: Jeff Spooner 

The decision was finally made to construct a new building, and the spot was picked, close to Redwing Pond.   Two local technical high schools, Platt Technical School and Emmett O'Brien Technical School, were involved in the project, enabling their students to have input and to learn by working with the architect and energy specialists, as well as by performing the carpentry, electrical and plumbing work on the building. Incorporating students from the high schools in the project enabled FANCI to obtain additional funding, and by utilizing alternative energy options in the schoolhouse, FANCI was also able to take advantage of funding from the Exxon Valdez lawsuit settlement.

Overall, it took about ten years to raise funds and construct the school house. By that point, FANCI was running out of money to furnish the school they had built, so the Ansonia Board of Education stepped in to finish and equip the classroom, and it became one of the sites for Ansonia's School Readiness Program.   While the city's program itself was not nature-based, staff provided weekly nature and gardening classes to the children. When Ansonia consolidated its program from four sites to one, and the program moved from the Nature Center, the opportunity arose to finally use the school house for its intended purpose.

Redwing Garden
RWPH garden 

Enter Jackie Lema. Jackie was hired in March of 2011 as Director/Head Teacher, with hopes that the school would open that September. But there were more hurdles to overcome. Inspections, more meetings, more requirements to fulfill, and yet more inspections. Jackie spent many hours working to get the school up and running, and her biggest advice for those who are in the process of starting a nature-based program is to give it time - lots of it!

"You need time to attend meetings, which may only be held once a month; you need time to get on the agenda for those meetings.   Your town committees may not meet in the summer, or may not have a quorum when they do meet, so you may have to wait until the next meeting. It takes time to fulfill many requirements of the various boards, and it takes time to get inspections done." She goes on to say that many inspections are necessary - the health department, the fire department, planning and zoning; and in the case of Redwing Pond, since it is a city building on city property, there were other local and state regulations to meet.

This January, all the requirements were met, all the inspections done, and the state license was issued, enabling Redwing Pond House Preschool to welcome its first class of preschoolers. The families of the children were willing to wait for the school to open, even though it was in the middle of the school year, because they feel this nature-based education is important.

Redwing student
RWPH student plants peas
Photo: Jeff Spooner 

Jen, the mother of a little girl attending the school, was thrilled to find Redwing Pond House Preschool. "I want my child to be in an environment where she is not pressured to learn academics; that can come a little later. We should let children this age learn play and socialization skills, and let them learn on their own. If you approach learning in a fun way, you engage the child's natural sense of wonder."

The school currently has one morning session with up to 16 students, and is hoping to have two daily sessions when they open for the fall session. Tuition is commensurate with other nursery schools in the area. The school gets no funding from the city, other than the cost of utilities and keeping the roads plowed in winter. All salaries, insurance, and other expenses are paid by FANCI, through fundraising endeavors. The school also hopes to have school vacation programs in the future.

In addition to the natural surroundings, there will also be a school garden. The children will sow the seeds, grow them in the greenhouse, transplant them in the garden, and tend to the plants. And of course, they can pick the fruits of their labors to share with their families at home. This brings full circle Donna's vision of children being involved with what they eat.

While there were times of frustration, Jackie says it has definitely been worth it, especially when she sees the children exploring freely, and sharing the excitement of what they've learned with their classmates. "The children will not only gain knowledge, they will gain confidence from doing it on their own, from being allowed to explore till they master something."

Redwing peas
Photo: Jeff Spooner

And after preschool? Will this education help them, even if they attend a conventional education program? Says Jackie, "When a child has learned that they can find things out on their own, that is a good basis for individual learning that they take with them."

Adds teacher Mary Beth," These kids leave knowing that they can learn about the world around them on their own. The experience they have here before traditional education is something they will carry with them. They will never lose what they have learned about themselves and the world around them."

For further information on Redwing Pond House Preschool, contact Director Jacqueline Lema at 203-734-RWPH, or at Find them on Facebook:




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Establishing Your School Garden

The first in a series of guides to getting your school garden up and growing!

Many thanks to Annelise McCay of Fairfield for her help with this article.

Part One - Getting Organized and Getting Approval

So, you are a parent who has been tinkering with the idea of starting a garden at your child's school. School gardens seem like a great idea.  To a parent, a garden is a wonderful place for a child to learn, to connect with nature, and to incorporate learning in a fun environment.

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Or maybe you are a teacher at a school and would love to establish a garden on the grounds. To a teacher, a garden is a great educational tool, sparking a child's natural curiosity and offering many opportunities to incorporate all subjects of a school's curriculum.

But perhaps you are a bit hesitant, because you really have no idea where to start.   What's the first step?  Who do you talk to?  And how do you convince others to jump on board?  Buying seeds and builiding beds seems like the easy part compared to going before the school board and trying to get approval.

It's all comes down to research and preparation.  Do your homework, find others with the same vision, draw up a plan, and get started. 

First, the homework. There are quite a few school gardens up and running in Connecticut. Find out where they are, contact the school, talk to the administrator of the garden, and better yet, go visit. Many of the schools are understandably proud of what they've built and eager to share their experiences. If you can't make a visit in person, search the internet and read about experiences at schools, not just in our state but elsewhere. Find out the obstacles they encountered and read how they overcame them. This will give you not only confidence that you can do it, but also will arm you with practical information and strategies.

After you've gotten a good idea of what you want to have at your school, contact other members of the school community - other parents, fellow members of the PTA, etc - and start a garden committee. This can be a subgroup of your PTA or it can be an independent group, although working in conjunction with your PTA would be more helpful. While having more people involved means less work for one person, it also expands the talent pool and opens up a wider range of connections that may be of help later on.

Next, your group should draw up a plan. Not only should you have a plan of the actual garden, including layout (remember things like having paths wide enough to accommodate students in wheelchairs, and other ADA [Americans with Disabilities Act] requirements) and possible locations for it on the school grounds, but your plan should include funding options. You don't have to have the actual funding in place, but have some ideas of where you can get funding for the garden. (See CT NOFA's  School Garden Resource page for help with this.) Remember, most school districts are working under budget constraints, so any independent funding you can line up will help you get approval. And this is where it is helpful to have that group of people around you - there is most likely a person in the group with grant-writing ability who can help you out with this aspect. Included in your plan should also be fundraising events you can have through your school - sales, etc. Get creative. Sherman School in Fairfield held a brick fundraising sale where families could buy and donate bricks with names or sayings engraved on them, which would go to help build the garden.

vegetablesSpeaking of building, in addition to funding ideas, have some thoughts on where you can get supplies for the garden. Make a list of local hardware stores, home improvement stores, lumber suppliers, even contractors who may be willing to help out with donations of supplies or labor. Again, here is where the group factor helps - someone in your group is bound to know someone who can help out on this front - or may even BE the person who can help out! Get the community involved. Think of service groups like scouting organizations, which may help out on some level, or the Master Gardeners program. Master Gardeners are required to fulfill a certain number of community volunteer hours, so they are perfect candidates to help you plan, build, and plant your garden. Again, you don't have to have all these folks on board yet, but have a list of potential people, companies, and contractors to contact.

Present this plan to your PTA president to see if the PTA will take this on as a project. If they will, your next step is to present the plan to the school principal. When you get to this point, you will want to have  some kind of tie-in to the school curriculum. Present the school garden as an educational tool that all teachers, on all levels can use. For instance, Sherman School included in their plan a bed for each grade level, which was themed to something that grade would be working on that year. An example is the third grade's study of Native American culture; their garden plot consisted of the Three Sisters planting, which tied in with their studies. Also at Sherman, art classes worked on decorative items to place in the garden. This connection with all subjects taught at the school will make it obvious how important of a learning tool your garden can be.

You should be prepared for two other things. Inevitably, the question of summer care will come up. Sherman School handled this quickly and satisfactorily by having the families of students volunteer for summer care. Each family only needed to volunteer a few hours for one week of the summer, where the students would water and weed, and then were welcome to harvest vegetables from the garden. The sign-up sheets filled up quickly and coverage was assured before the summer began. A similar plan will help you head off any worries about summer care.

Secondly, you may have some teacher resistance. Not all teachers see the value of a garden on school grounds, or perhaps they feel they just don't have the time to incorporate it into their lessons. Again, remember that many schools may be understaffed and teachers are working under great constraints of time as well as funding. So have a plan to have parents in the school community volunteer for garden duty. Sherman School did this and it worked well for them. I'm sure we are all familiar with the "art-on-a-cart" in many of our schools. The Sherman PTA applied this concept to the garden. They wheeled a grow cart from class to class, having made a schedule with the teachers for each class to have a half hour to learn to make newspaper pots, sow their seeds, put them under the grow lights, etc. Later in the spring, they had half-hour time slots for each class to come out to the garden to plant their seedlings. The point is that the PTA committed to a long-term volunteer schedule to get the students involved, to help the teachers in this endeavor, and while doing so helped to win over those teachers who were hesitant about the idea.

Establishing a school garden may seem like a large and perhaps even a daunting task, but if you take it step by step, do your research and prepare well, it is certainly achievable.  And to judge from the schools that do have school gardens in place, it was well worth the effort!


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