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With Commitment to Young Students, BBG Cultivates a Healthy Future

With Commitment to Young Students, BBG Cultivates a Healthy Future

With some soil and seeds, creativity and collaboration, sweat and persistence, much of what Berkshire Botanical Garden’s Farm and Garden program teaches today’s youngsters targets much of what can be worrisome in these modern times.

Name a potential drawback for today’s youth raised in this digital age. Social isolation? inadequate attention to physical and mental health? A kink in the line of knowledge passed down from generation to generation? Deficiency in teamwork skills, mindfulness and appreciation for the natural world?

“We provide an opportunity, in a safe and supportive environment, for young people to try new things, connect with nature and connect with each other” said Bridgette Stone, BBG’s director of education. “Team building and building practical life skills are what we focus on.”

Each year, Berkshire Botanical Garden’s Farm and Garden program serves more than 650 youth learners and offers more than 650 instructional hours across 12 programs in the region — both in the classroom and outside in the garden.

Funded through grants, financial gifts from BBG members and proceeds from BBG events, the Farm and Garden program helps fulfill BBG’s longstanding commitment to community service. Specifically, that commitment entails venturing beyond its 24-acre botanical garden to fulfill the community’s need for information, education and inspiration concerning the art and science of gardening and the preservation of our local environment.

Kessa McEwen, BBG’s education coordinator, can vouch for the impact such programs can have. Following college graduation, she did an internship during which she experienced what she calls an “aha moment.” She was leading an outdoor field trip for third graders when a boy said, “This is the most fun I’ve ever had!” 

“I realized,” said Kessa, “that I could make a difference in the lives of kids.”

Specifically, she realized the importance of introducing children to nature — the woods, the garden, engaging the senses, patiently tending plants, growing and eating their own healthy food — beginning at a young age. 

“That inspires them to love and care for nature; that’s our home, and it should be protected,” said Kessa. “I think a garden is a great place for children to work cooperatively, build confidence and learn something new. Not only is it good for them to be introduced to nature and learn from it, but it’s also good for their social-emotional development. They’re developing confidence, learning team-building skills, challenging themselves often without them even realizing it.”

Bridgette hastened to add that, through the Farm and Garden program, students also learn the practical application of several scientific disciplines, including botany, biology and chemistry.

“And we hold cooking classes, too, teaching them ways to cook the food they grow,” she said.

With a new school year upon us, here is where Berkshire Botanical Garden’s Farm and Garden program can be found:

Great Barrington, Mass. — On the grounds of the Berkshire Hills Regional School District campus, the Farm and Garden program works with about 100 fourth through sixth graders two to three days a week during the school year and four days a week in the summer. The program started in 2013. 

In addition to gardening, the program includes crafts and cooking. The students sow, reap and forage. They make bouquets, soups, teas, salves, and balms. Some of their artful creations are donated to BBG’s annual Holiday Marketplace in December. 

Over the years, the students have collaborated with the local land trust and cultural institutions that serve the financially underprivileged. They have worked with farmers and local farmers markets. Bearing garden bounty, they’ve visited senior centers.

The particular garden they call home is overseen by Project Sprout, a program of Monument Mountain High School. Through a cooperative agreement, Berkshire Botanical Garden takes care of about half of the garden beds through its year-round work with students from the adjacent Muddy Brook Elementary School and W.E.B Du Bois Regional Middle School. 

In the summer, BBG’s five-week off-site summer camp — a 21st Century Program known in the school district as Project Connection — includes typical garden sowing and maintenance of these garden beds. 

Richmond, Mass. —  Since 2018, BBG provides garden classes for kindergarteners, third graders and seventh graders at Richmond Consolidated School in both the fall and spring, six weeks each season, two hours per week.

Set beside the school, a dozen garden beds serve as the program’s centerpiece. This school year, the students’ efforts will include contributing food from the garden for the school’s lunch program.

“The director of the food service program there is eager to have locally grown food,” said Bridgette. “We’ve introduced greens already, and we’ve made scones using ingredients grown on site.” 

The fall program emphasizes harvesting, cleaning up the garden for the winter, planting cover crops, seed saving, and making native seed balls for spring. The spring program emphasizes planting and garden upkeep. BBG staff oversees the garden through the summer break.

Augmenting the garden activities, BBG instructors also immerse the students in activities that teach observational skills in nature.

“We want them to learn how to look a little deeper at the world around them,” said Kessa. “We put specific emphasis on identifying symbiotic relationships in nature.”

Lenox, Mass. — Beginning in 2018, in tandem with the Lenox Library Youth Garden Club, BBG runs an afterschool program for first through fifth graders. The program extends from April through September, every other Thursday, at a garden set beside the Lenox Library.

With portions of the garden in deep shade, students get a crash course in the challenges gardeners often face. Tailoring the planting to the garden’s sun exposure, the students grow corn, beans, tomatoes, and squash, as well as flowers. The youngsters decorate the garden. They help prepare garden feasts. They create little pollinator puddles using terra cotta pots to attract beneficial pollinators. 

When it comes time to harvest, no one goes home empty-handed. 

Pittsfield, Mass. — BBG works at three locations in Berkshire County’s biggest city. Since 2013, BBG staff have led programs at Reid Middle School. In 2020, the efforts expanded to Herberg Middle School. This year, BBG began running the garden program on the grounds of the company Blue Q. 

At the two schools, with gardens built at each location, several dozen students each year are offered a Farm in the Garden program with BBG as a 21st Century Program option, which provides students with afterschool activities at no cost to families. Students meet twice per week. In addition to gardening, they cook together and work on crafts. For instance, students have enjoyed experimenting with natural pigments found in fruits and vegetables, developing their own natural watercolors and creating botanically themed postcard collages. 

At Blue Q, beginning this past spring, Bridgette has been overseeing the planting and upkeep of 12 raised garden beds and has also masterminded the planters in the adjacent pergola, each of which contain a merriment of fanciful flora. Joining Bridgette in the garden each week is a group of Blue Q employees from Berkshire County Arc, a non-profit that serves people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, including Jenna, Marissa, Julia, and others.

Stockbridge, Mass. — Finally, the Farm in the Garden Camp, established in 2013, serves five- to 14-year-olds on the grounds of BBG in July and August and on the week-long school breaks in February and April. 

The main task at hand is “purposeful play,” said Rachel Durgin, the camp director. 

The camp connects children to the Garden, to our food system, to the environment and to one another. The campers are taught to care for the plants and the Garden’s livestock and how to make good use of the garden harvest. Campers plant seedlings, collect eggs, go on nature walks, engage in botanical crafts, prepare baked goods from garden harvests and help run a weekly farmers market at BBG in the summer.

“A lot of our campers come from city landscapes and may not have the ability to learn or connect with the earth,” Rachel said. “So we help to introduce them to a whole new world.”

The farmers market features healthy baked goods, crafts and harvest from the garden.

“The money raised all goes directly to a scholarship fund that pays the fees for camp families who need assistance,” Rachel said. “The kids learn the importance and the reward in contributing back to your community.”

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