On a sunny September afternoon, a handful of eighth-graders knelt in the dirt harvesting beets, kale and zucchini. Another group scrubbed soil off newly collected carrots, while still others cut flower heads off basil plants.
The 11 students were part of a horticulture and gardening program at the private Waldorf School of Garden City, where students tend two organic gardens. The 353-student school expanded its garden-to-table operation last year and added the class -- previously available to students in grades six through eight -- to the curriculum in first through fifth grades, too, as part of a school philosophy to educate students through hands-on experience.
"In order to provide a complete education, gardening and farming is part of it," school faculty chairwoman Sabine Kully said about the 8-year-old program. "It is what creates a balanced human being who understands the world we live in: grow vegetables from scratch and eat them."
Horticulture teacher Jeannine Davis -- who tends the garden in summer, with help from high school students -- instructs the children on how to plant, care for and harvest the vegetables and fruits from the gardens situated on the north and south sides of the Cambridge Avenue school. The students grow perennial and seasonal plants year-round, and paint and write about their efforts in their "growing" journals, Davis said.
"I want them to have an experience with nature," said Davis, of Long Beach, who also is the adviser for the high school's Green Club, whose goal is to build a greenhouse that could be used during the winter months. "I want them to learn how food looks on the ground, not just out in the supermarket."
The produce is usually used daily in the school's cafeteria for student lunches. One favorite: Brussels sprouts sauteed in garlic and butter prepared in the garden during class. Students also make their own compost, using cafeteria scraps and wood shavings and sawdust from the school's woodworking class.
"I didn't really like to eat vegetables, but now I do," said eighth-grader Phoebe Koubel, 14, of Westbury, who's started helping her mother in their home garden.
Last Friday, Davis and her class boarded a white mini school bus carrying 80 pounds of organic produce packed into woven wood baskets for their annual field trip to the Mary Brennan INN, a soup kitchen and food pantry in Hempstead Village. The students presented INN representatives with eggplants, beets, squash, basil, carrots, peppers, tomatoes, mizuna, kale, zucchini and fennel.
"It's nice that the school gets involved," said Toni Ebron, INN volunteer project manager, adding the vegetables would be used in cooked meals for hungry and homeless clients.
Eighth-grader Trevor Beale, 13, said he is looking forward to Friday, when his class will begin Friday visits to the Crossroads Farm at the historic Grossmann's Farm in Malverne Village. That's where they will start the next crop from seeds indoors. Beale added he became a vegetarian three years ago, after joining the program.
"I find everything to be fresher and more tasty," said Beale, of Freeport, about eating from his school's garden. "It's my favorite class. It is fun to be in the garden."
The school's gardens
NORTH GARDEN: about 60 feet by 25 feet, grows vegetables and flowers.
SOUTH GARDEN: about 50 feet by 30 feet, grows some vegetables, but mostly flowers, herbs and fruits.
Growing in the gardens
FALL CROPS: Spinach, lettuce, broccoli, cauliflower and Brussels sprouts.
SPRING CROPS: Tomatoes, pumpkins, sugar snap peas, carrots, celery, eggplants, beets and peppers.
FRUIT TREES: Apples, pears, cherries, apricots, plums and baby pomegranates.
Source: Waldorf School of Garden City