Digging in the soil for the first time and watching seeds transform into plants and vegetables can fascinate young children like no other outdoor activity can. It can also play a big role in developing a life-long passion for gardening and eating locally grown produce. This is the inspiration behind Project Grow.
Sponsored by Vigoro Nursery and Generali Worldwide, Project Grow has built gardens in some 20 schools across the Cayman Islands, teaching children from as young as 3 to 15 years old the principles of gardening. Combined with hands-on experience, Project Grow allows children to relate growing their own vegetables and herbs to healthy eating.
For a new school garden, Tom Balon of Vigoro Nursery will build the grow box with the children, fill it with rich soil and teach them how to plant seeds and starter plants. Balon will ask them questions to get a sense of their knowledge, such as what roots do, what are good bugs and bad bugs, what is needed to sustain a good environment and whether a coconut is a seed.
Generally, the gardens are started in the October to November months when it is cooler. Every school garden is different, but easy-to-grow vegetables to start off with typically include tomatoes, cucumbers, eggplants, pumpkins, leeks and peppers. A range of greens such as mustards and bok choy also do well in Cayman’s hot climate. School gardens have also found success with herbs like mint, basil, oregano, thyme and rosemary. Tools and extra seeds are provided to the schools so the children can take care of their gardens throughout the academic year.
“In some gardens, you may have great success with say, tomatoes. Then in the next garden they are not so good, but then they have success with another veggie. It is good to try different things, and when something grows with ease, keep using it, says Balon.
Over the years, a vital part of Project Grow has been convincing teachers to find a way to squeeze a school garden into their hectic curriculums. Anna Winfindale, a teacher at St. Ignatius Catholic School, says the school garden has provided learning opportunities across the whole curriculum. “Children are learning not only the scientific processes surrounding living things, but also learning future life skills, responsibility and, more importantly, a greater awareness for sustainable living,” says Winfindale.
Gardening brings health benefits like more physical activity, fresh air and a sense of well-being. It also offers kids a fresh way to talk about good nutrition and develop healthy eating habits at a young age. Many children have been so inspired by their learning experiences with their school gardens that they are asking their parents about what goes into their food, says Karen Ebanks of Generali Worldwide, who coordinates the school gardens and marketing for the programme.
A new initiative by Project Grow is having a local farmer set up a pop-up market at participating schools at the same time the parents pick up their kids. The pop-up markets provide a golden opportunity for parents and their children to shop for locally grown fruits and vegetables together.
“It’s produce that has been picked from the farm the same morning, so it doesn’t get any more fresh,” says Ebanks. “It is so exciting to see kids picking their own tomatoes, smelling them, weighing them and being part of the buying process. They actually see the end product at the pop-ups, so they then want to take care of their gardens more, because they see that this little plant can grow into a tomato tree.”