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).

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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).

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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).

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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).

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Vegetable-Tofu Stir Fry @ the Chill Zone

“Stir fry? I love stir fry!” The shouts rang out as youth hanging out at the Chill Zone this past Saturday gathered in the snack room to cook up some stir fry. However, much of the excitement quickly turned to confusion as students realized there was no chicken to be found.

“Wait… stir fry without chicken? What?!” They asked in shock. So began an introduction to the wonders of tofu.

Tofu is made of soy beans, and is often used by vegetarians (and non-vegetarians!) as a replacement for meat in a variety of dishes. It has a spongy texture– we had lots of fun squishing it with our fingers– which is great for soaking up lots of flavor. If you choose to eat less meat in your diet, protein-rich foods like tofu are essential to keeping your body healthy and happy. But the wonders of tofu and soy beans don’t stop at replacing meat: soy products can also be used to replace milk, cream cheese, yogurt, and even ice cream!

Some Chill Zone participants were pretty skeptical that the tofu would make a tasty meat replacement. But despite their raised eyebrows, everyone helped prepare the meal by chopping up lots of different vegetables. A great veggie stir fry can be made with just about any vegetable combination, but there are a few basic ingredients, such as onion and garlic, that you should keep in mind when getting started. After frying up some of these alliums in our electric wok (and a little ginger, for good measure), we added the tofu and waited as it became golden brown. We then added carrots, broccoli, and red pepper, and also made a separate batch with mushrooms. As we waited for the veggies to cook we mixed up a scrumptious sauce of honey, rice vinegar, and soy sauce to pour on top of our stir fry. The final product: delicious! I think we may have even had some tofu-converts.

After chowing down on our stir fry, we had an herb and spice smell test. Following up on last week’s discussion of parts of a plant and flavorings, the kids were excited to test their knowledge and get a little more familiar with the dried herbs and spices I brought in from home. By the end of our session, the guys were spice experts, easily telling basil from oregano and nutmeg from cumin with only the slightest sniff.



Saturday, March 19th, 2011 from 1-3PM

—–> Middle Eastern Snack Day

Images by Cecelia Watkins (2011). For more information on the Chill Zone or how to get involved, please visit their website or contact Recreation Supervisor Kathy Gross.

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First Outdoor Planting @ Stanley

Yesterday was the perfect occasion to start our outdoor garden work; the weather was mild and sunny, and the kids could hardly wait to fill up some of our empty garden beds with new plant life. But first, we checked on our indoor trays, which are sprouting up nicely. We even have some true leaves on a few varieties!

Once outside, we turned our hands into instant cultivators, gently swirling our fingers in the garden beds to loosen or aerate (add air to) the soil. We then interplanted (planted more than one crop in the same row or bed) some Easter Egg radishes with Mokum carrots. We decided to plant the radishes and carrots together since we know the radishes will mature (be ready for harvesting) long before the carrots. In about a month we’ll pull out the radishes, giving the carrots extra space as they grow.

We also filled a bed with Sugar Ann snap peas, a favorite early crop amongst the kids. To help increase our snap pea yield (the amount we harvest) and promote soil fertility (the ability of the soil to provide nutrients to the plants), we inoculated our peas with a powdery bacteria called rhizobium (pronounced “rye-zoh-bee-um”). Together, the rhizobium and peas create a mutualistic relationship, which simply means they help each other out. In this case, the peas get nitrogen from the bacteria, held in nodules on the pea roots, while the bacteria get starch (food for the rhizobium) from the pea roots. Even better, whatever nitrogen the peas don’t use up is left in the garden bed for other crops planted later in the season.

The Nitrogen Cycle

The diagram above shows how nitrogen moves between the atmosphere and the earth. Volcanic eruptions and pollution release nitrogen gas into the air that must be “fixed” by lightning or bacteria in the soil; once deposited in the ground by rain and snow, this nitrogen is converted into inorganic nitrogen compounds like ammonia and ammonium. The plants are then able to use these new forms of nitrogen to create protein to be eaten by animals (don’t forget, humans are animals, too!), providing them with amino acids needed for many bodily processes. Nitrogen is also deposited into soil by the decomposition or breakdown of organic plant and animal wastes and released back into the atmosphere by denitrifying bacteria.

Opening up to the warmer weather

Before we left for the evening, a few of the kids stuck around to help Cece and I replant broccoli since our original “broccoli” trays are actually full of Chinese cabbage sprouts. With a whole tray filled up, we should have no shortage of these little green trees come late spring.

Next week, we’ll start eggplant, beet, and pepper seeds indoors for transplanting later this spring.


The Nitrogen Cycle diagram was created by the United States Environmental Protection Agency and used via Wikipedia (“Nitrogen Cycle”). All other images by Rebekah Carter (2011).
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Searching for Signs of Spring

Caring for our newly-sprouted dicots (plants with two embryonic leaves)

This is a very exciting time of the year for any New Englander with a green thumb, including some of our city’s youngest gardeners found at Stanley Elementary. With most of the snow melted away, a walk around our garden beds quickly tells us that Old Man Winter has left behind beautiful, moist earth that will soon become home to many seeds and transplants.  Furthering our excitement was the discovery of tiny sprouts in our Chinese cabbage*, Brussels sprouts, and kohlrabi trays this past Tuesday, just one week after planting them!

To get reacquainted with our garden space, Cece and I took the kids outside for a bit of exploration. Using our five senses- sight, hearing, taste, touch, and smell- the children discovered signs of new life and remnants of last fall’s harvest.

Kids roamed the space freely, hearing the calls of birds, the crunching of dry grasses below our feet, and the passing of rush-hour trains shuttling workers out of the city and back home to the suburbs. The scent of damp earth- a sweet, grassy smell- filled our noses and reminded us of the need to soon prepare our beds for planting.

We felt the softness of Lamb’s ear and vibrant green and brown mosses scattered around the marsh.

We saw evidence of last year’s bounty, including the dried leaves, flowers and seed pods  of hydrangea bushes (we also saw signs of new life- buds, seen above), Brussels sprout stalks, and the papery, yellow aftermath of unharvested cherry tomatoes.

So it seems easy enough to see, hear, touch, and smell the signs of spring, but how did we taste life, you ask? Students had no trouble finding both spicy chives and flavorful thyme (above, right) to sample!

Perhaps most telling of spring’s arrival was our discovery of purple and white crocuses beside the garden beds!

While we’ll continue to look for the tell-tale signs of spring in the garden, this activity can continue just about anywhere outside. What signs of spring have you seen in your yard and neighborhood?


*We received mislabeled seeds; what we thought was broccoli was actually Chinese cabbage! We will plant some broccoli next week but keep the cabbage, too.

Images by Rebekah Carter (2011).

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Creamy Cole Slaw @ the Chill Zone

Shredding, grating, and stirring away

Cabbage and carrots tossed in a creamy and tangy dressing were the feature of last weekend’s Chill Zone session. Cece and I helped kids shred cabbage, grate carrots and onion, and measure and mix ingredients for this no-cook side dish. Everyone tried at least a taste of the finished slaw, and some kids took a pint home to share with family. While we prepped, we discussed why cabbage and its relatives are called “cruciferous” vegetables and quizzed kids on what parts of plants (i.e. leaf, flower, fruit, seed, bark, stem, root) we use as particular spices and herbs in cooking.

Making this slaw at home is as easy as combining the ingredients below:

Creamy Cole Slaw

  • 1 head of green cabbage, shredded
  • 2 large carrots, grated

To be tossed in this sauce (mix all ingredients thoroughly):

  • 3/4 cup mayonnaise
  • 2 tbsp sour cream
  • 2 tbsp white vinegar
  • 1-2 tbsp onion, grated*
  • 1-2 tbsp sugar*
  • 1 tbsp dijon mustard*
  • 1 tbsp celery seed, or to taste*
  • salt to taste

*Adjustments made by Healthy Waltham

After cooking and cleaning, a couple of kids stuck around to help plant seeds for our windowsill herb garden, featuring dill, basil, cilantro, chives, and parsley. These plants will be living in my kitchen window until we can move them into our Healthy Waltham office, which is conveniently located in the same building as the Chill Zone. Hopefully we will begin to see sprouts in the coming days!



Saturday, March 12th, 2011 from 1-3PM

—–> Vegetable Stir Fry

Images by Rebekah Carter (2011). Recipe courtesy of Bobby Flay from the Food Network. For more information on the Chill Zone or how to get involved, please visit their website or contact Recreation Supervisor Kathy Gross.

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Waltham Butternut Squash Soup

As part of our participation in Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move! initiative, Healthy Waltham and Northeast Elementary School students worked together to create a delicious soup recipe for the Recipes for Healthy Kids Challenge, now posted on its website. To submit a recipe into the competition, students had to create a nutritious dish featuring one of three specific food groups: whole grains, dark green or orange vegetables, or dried beans and peas. Home to the well-known and very-orange Waltham Butternut Squash, the final decision on what to cook up was a no-brainer!

Photo by Maria DiMaggio (2010).

Keep your eyes peeled for more healthy recipes on our blog in the coming weeks!


The Recipes for Healthy Kids banner image used via their website:

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Are Worms Sensitive to Light?

Last week at McDevitt Middle School, students in Mrs. Murray’s science Cluster Challenge designed simple experiments to find out if worms are sensitive to light. Students worked alone and in groups to develop a hypothesis (a predicted result), an experimental procedure (a means of testing a hypothesis), and a conclusion (what was observed during the experiment and possible causes of the result).

Students used classroom materials such as empty boxes, black and brown construction paper, and flashlights to see what happens when worms are placed in light or dark conditions but given the option to move between the two constructed environments. Each experiment used a sample size (the number of things being observed or tested in a scientific study) of 6-10 different worms in order to ensure results that better represent typical behavior of the general red wiggler population (the total number of organisms for a defined area or group; can be very specific, like 4th grade students at Northeast Elementary, or very broad, like all Waltham students under the age of 18).

After trying several techniques to see if the worms liked or disliked being exposed to light, students concluded that worms are definitely sensitive to light. They almost always tried to slither into darkness when under the flashlight! Even when they were simply sitting on a table, the worms tried whatever they could to escape light, as you can see in the picture below.

Why might worms be so sensitive to light? Since we know that worms need their skin to stay nice and moist so they can breathe, it makes sense that worms feel threatened by light exposure that could potentially heat them up and dry them out. Their reaction (to slither into darkness) is a survival mechanism, or a behavior intended to protect themselves against predators or threatening aspects of their natural environment, such as sunlight.


Why do you think they are wrapping around each other in the petri (pronounced "pee-tree") dish?

Despite annoying them for a little while, no worms were harmed in our experiment. Images by Rebekah Carter (2011).

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