Sep 262013

Pop quiz time:

Q. It takes ________ to have a beautiful and productive school garden.

a) community; b) special person; c) hard work; d) great attitude; e ) all of the above

ANSWER: e) all of the above

Two things autumn brings with it are the first days of school and harvest time for farmers and gardeners. At the Groton-Dunstable Middle School, they blend into one milestone.

Kids are roaming the hallways, and at the south building, they’re looking through windows at a bountiful harvest in the courtyard. The eggplants are a little late this year, but are almost ready. Sunflowers are nodding in the breeze at the students and staff. The string beans and peas are long gone. Tomatoes are still finding their way to the cafeteria though, and the first frost is weeks away.

Much of the credit for the garden’s success goes to Karen Gartland. She doesn’t talk much about her own role. But she can barely speak two sentences without praising the community members and students who have helped to make the Groton-Dunstable Middle School garden the stunning – and mostly edible – display it is today.

Now that school has started, the harvest goes right into the cafeteria to Food Service Director Pam Patnode. The basil turns into pesto that tops pasta; the kids really like pasta pesto, Gartland said. And she’ll put the tomatoes in the salads. The peas never make it to the cafeteria, though — the kids eat them right off the vine.

This season, many of the plants were donated by Sally Smith at Groton’s Common View Farm. In addition to herbs and bountiful tomatoes – slicing, plum, and at least two varieties of cherry — there are eggplants, and at least three kinds of peppers. “Last year we made mint tea, ” Gartland recalled, pausing to compliment a couple of kids who are watering and to suggest that they linger a bit longer at each bed.

Seven years ago, Gartland came to Groton-Dunstable to teach 8th grade math. As she settled in and became a member of the education community here, she learned some of the history of the courtyard. At one time, going back 15-20 “… years ago, there used to be a good number of events that would take place here. They had a gazebo; they had a stage. They used to do little plays out here; they had a fair amount of different kinds of plantings, and then over the years when people got busy it sort of went by the wayside. There used to be a fountain in the middle of (the) octagon.”

In the past, the plantings were ornamental flowers and plants, “never vegetables that I know of.” Over time, she recalls, the courtyard gardens “… turned into a wildflower area with a lot of bittersweet and other kinds of invasive weeds and plantings.”

Three years ago, Gartland became a charter member of a newly-formed nutrition committee, “I wasn’t happy with what was going on with the school lunch program here. One of the school committee members, Berta Erickson, had mentioned to me that she had a great interest in turning this (the courtyard) into a vegetable garden.”

And so they got to work. Gartland gestures at the entire courtyard, saying “…this (whole area) needed to be cleared. Erickson marshalled and drafted a crew of volunteers, including several Groton landscape companies, that donated their time and equipment one June day three years ago to clear the garden. In addition to the professionals, a lot of kids from the schools, boy scouts, parents, and people from the community showed up.

Gartland continued, “Berta was very instrumental in getting a lot of people involved, really getting the construction part of it done,” which involved building the 17 raised beds.

Michael Donnelly, then tech instructor at the high school, “Had a group of kids, a whole class came over for the entire day, with their tool belts and their saws – it was tremendous. Berta got wood and loam donated…. And we paid for some as well, because I had applied for a Groton-Dunstable Educational Foundation “Farm to Table” grant.”

Since then Gartland has applied for and received two GDEF grants totaling $1750. Some of that money was used to buy more loam, to fill in more beds and expand the garden. The Groton Electric Light Department donated all the mulch that creates an attractive barrier to weeds.

“And then we formed a (school) garden group, which is completely voluntary on the kids’ part and my part. For the past two years, (we) have met once a week and the kids have actually ended up designing what they wanted to grow in here. We had a fair amount of conversation about good nutrition and I would bring healthy snacks.” Gartland said. “I had Chef Paul come from Groton Wellness in, and he taught the kids how to make a healthy pizza. He’s offered to come back and we’ll do a little Iron Chef competition with the produce that we get.”

The volunteers and groups had to be significantly reduced this season. All summer long, construction on the roof surrounding the courtyard curtailed work days. Gartland worked closely with the construction managers and was able to arrange safe times to access the garden to keep it going all summer.

Gartland is looking forward to resuming the once-a-week student gardening group, and to extend a welcome to other community members and organizations. Gartland stresses, “it’s open to anyone,” and she would love to see community members of all ages participating. Once a week they meet in the garden or, if the weather is bad, they gather in Gartland’s classroom.

Like to garden? Want to help out?

The middle school garden was created by Groton and Dunstable community volunteers, under Gartland’s tutelage, and some have moved on, Gartland said. So new volunteers are needed to fill a variety of roles:

  • People to help harvest and put the gardens to bed this fall and begin planning for spring.
  • Meet with the after school group (probably meeting on Tuesdays after school)
  • Find more plantings —- blueberry bushes, shrubs for fall and winter interest
  • An irrigation pro to help come up with an irrigation plan, possibly including soaker hoses or rain barrels
  • Find more loam and mulch
  • Be garden docents to present the garden when classes visit

If you’re interested, email Gartland at to make arrangements to drop off materials or offer support.