Middle School Gardening and the Outdoor Classroom

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All around Ross School’s Spiral Garden, saws are abuzz and dust is flying. Led by Ross Cafe Chef de Cuisine Liz Dobbs, a group of eighth graders is racing to ready the garden for the impending winter months. This year marks the first year that gardening has been offered as an elective course for middle school students, and the class teaches students to implement the principles of sustainable gardening while also yielding goods that supplement the cafe’s daily meals. “We made a huge effort to refurbish the garden last year,” Liz said. “I guess it looked so good that it inspired others to get involved.” When seventh grade team leader Carol Crane offered her the chance to offer a middle school elective in gardening, Liz lept at the chance.

Over the past several weeks, Liz has led the students in an effort to make the garden more sustainable. They’ve planted more perennial crops and transplanted those they have not thrived. Additionally, the students collected and sent soil samples to an independent lab for analysis. The results showed that the soil was rich in phosphorous, sulfur, and other organic matter—undoubtedly the result of mixing in local compost. To further fortify the soil, the students recently planted Hairy Vetch as a cover crop, known for its nitrogen fixing ability.

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The students are also building and installing three additional triangular plant beds. These will eventually be filled with winter-hardy plants like blackberries, but in advance of planting, the students are devising a system to prevent the area’s large vole population from ravaging them. Recently, Slow Food East End’s master gardener, Mark-Antonio Smith, visited the class and taught the students how to plant and care for organic garlic, which they will soon plant along with mint.

The garden, in addition to providing ingredients for Ross Cafe, also serves as an educational resource. Summer Camp @Ross hosts a gardening minor each summer, and last year, Hayground School’s Helene Necroto led students taught students how to grow and prepare their own vegetables. After planting is completed, students in the elective course will restore the garden’s educational area by refreshing paint in the seating area and completing the Spiral Path leading through it.

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For eighth grader Amelia R. ‘22, working in the garden has been a rewarding experience. “We spend all day in classrooms,” she said. “I like being here and getting time outside.” Liz, too, welcomes the opportunity to work outdoors.

Though initially envisioned as a student-run garden, Liz is proud that it’s grown into a community effort. Partners and donors throughout the East End have contributed to help the garden thrive. The school has received compost and topsoil donations from East Hampton’s Whitmore’s Landscaping; been gifted plants from Balsam Farms; received tools, stones, and even fixtures honoring of an alumnus from those in our school community. These contributions make it clear that although the students benefit most from it, Ross’s Spiral Garden belongs to everyone.

Liz continues to accept contributions of gardening supplies, plants, and bulbs. To donate, please contact her by email at ldobbs@ross.org.