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The Edible Schoolyard teaches young students more than just a green thumb

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“Edible education” was a concept first introduced to California middle schoolers nearly 25 years ago. Restaurateur and food educator Alice Waters theorized that students’ relationship with food, and their community, would strengthen as they learned to grow and eat healthy produce. The practice continues at Green Animals Topiary Garden in Portsmouth (owned by The Preservation Society of Newport County), where an edible schoolyard pilot program was initiated in 2015. It couldn’t have been a more appropriate place. There’s been a vegetable garden on-site for nearly 150 years, part of what was once a private country estate that also included a summer residence, farm outbuildings, and bucolic pasture on seven acres bordering Narragansett Bay.

Under the supervision of Chief Horticulturist Dan Christina, the Edible Schoolyard’s mission is to build a curriculum for kids that focuses on environmental sustainability and connecting various subjects to the garden. At its core, the Edible Schoolyard is a teaching garden set amid the oldest and most northern topiary garden in the US (it dates back to 1872). Lessons in the classroom seamlessly link to the outside, where Dan introduces students as young as kindergarten to a wide range of dirt-to-dinner plate produce.

“The students that return will be planting all sorts of crops: lettuce, radishes, turnips, beans, cabbage, kale, carrots, and various greens, [plus] some crops from seeds and some from transplants that were started in mid-August,” says Dan. “Some of these are quick crops, ready to harvest in 25 to 35 days. Some will be ready mid-October, and some will produce all the way to December – and beyond, depending on the weather!”

Nearly 100 varieties can be found in the schoolyard, where Dan also showcases some of the less commonly grown-at-home vegetables including celeriac, beets, tomatillos, and herbs like lemongrass. In this savory and sustainable environment, students are not only learning about how to seed, grow, and make healthy food choices, but about where these foods come from, their cultural relevance, impact factors like climate, and how to reduce vulnerability to animals and pests (for the most part, Dan practices organic and pesticide-free growing).

“One of the fun things is that many of the students who have the opportunity to return from the spring sessions of programs will get to harvest and eat crops they have planted,” he says. “It is a really nice way to connect those students to how simple it can be to grow your own food and makes it a little more special of a return trip.” And in October, for their efforts to create “positive pathways to the future”, the Edible Schoolyard will be recognized by the Rhode Island Council for Humanities as a recipient of their Innovation in the Humanities Award.