School courtyards blossom into secret gardens

Derynoski second grader Brayden Marchese and Juan Felix from Southington Lowe’s fill one of five garden beds in the school’s courtyard. The district-wide project began with a grant from Orchard Valley Garden Club and blossomed after a partnership between Southington Public Schools and the local home improvement store. (Photo by John Goralski)



This summer, garden beds are popping up in schools all across town as Southington schools get ready for a new science class this fall. And it’s all thanks to a partnership between district administrators and the Southington Lowe’s store 500 Executive Blvd. South.

Each Wednesday, a small band of Lowe’s employees descend on a different school, armed with supplies and tools from the Southington store. They are greeted by a team of volunteers and school officials to build raised garden beds for students in kindergarten and second grade. The new beds can use throughout the school year.

Strong, South End Plantsville, Derynoski, and Thalberg elementary schools all received gardens in the last month, and the team will complete the remaining schools in the upcoming weeks.

“Now, all of our planting will be geared up to go into the garden,” said John Duffy, the science curriculum coordinator for Southington schools. Duffy has been coordinating with Mark Ramsay from Lewis Educational Agriculture Farm (LEAF) to integrate the gardens into the curriculum. “There are certain plants that [Ramsay] plants at his farm to attract insects that are beneficial and eat other insects.”

As a result of the project, the elementary science curriculum will be enhanced through a hands-on learning environment that enables students to work outside in the gardens. Duffy said the kindergarteners grow seeds in plastic cups perched on the window sills.

Each garden bed is 12 feet long and 3 feet wide, and each school has multiple beds. The new gardens should provide a more successful environment than the plastic cup method where plant survival is hit-or-miss.

The garden bed project was hatched through a grant from the Orchard Valley Garden Club, above, to provide hands-on gardening for students at Derynoski Elementary School. From left, OVGC members Katy Hanlon, Kathy Morin and Marge Muzyczka; Derynoski assistant principal Kelly Nichols; and Southington science curriculum coordinator John Duffy. (Submitted)

The project began with a grant from Southington’s Orchard Valley Garden Club, but the concept quickly outgrew the seed money.

“The money that they gave us, while great to start, wasn’t nearly enough to cover even the total cost of two raised beds,” Duffy said.

That’s when Duffy partnered with Patrick Roy, the store manager at Lowe’s, and the project quickly blossomed into a district-wide series of gardens. Lowe’s split the cost of materials to save the district money, and the local store supplied everything that wasn’t able to be covered by the original grant.

“We’re going to probably be $3,000 in donations by the time this is over,” Roy said. “It was a good educational opportunity for everybody, and I’m glad that we could help.”

In addition, Lowe’s also donated garden hoses to water the plants and a tiller. Duffy had to coordinate with building staff to ensure that the gardens are watered during the summer months and ready for the new school year.

Derynoski volunteers Michelle and Brayden Marchese, left, pitch in to help Southington science coordinator John Duffy, center, and employees at Lowe’s home improvement store last Wednesday to build garden beds. (Photo by John Goralski)

Despite the blazing heat last Wednesday, at least a dozen people were on hand at the Derynoski to take on the biggest segment of the summer project. While some schools got two or three garden beds, Derynoski—Southington’s largest elementary school—needed five beds to accommodate the number of second graders in the building.

The number of beds at each school was carefully determined before the start of the project.

“I’m putting the same number of beds as there are classrooms,” Duffy said. “There are five grade 2 classes at Derynoski, so when we do a unit for grade 2 all of them can come out here at the same time.”

The hands-on science lessons will meet new curriculum standards, which Southington is slowly implementing in classrooms.

“Whatever they learn in class is going to translate out here,” Duffy said.

Lowe’s staff worked all day to transform the Derynoski courtyard into a new learning environment. Duffy was right by their side getting his hands dirty, too. Also on hand was Brayden Marchese, who is entering second grade at Derynoski this fall.

Standing beside the raised beds, Marchese demonstrated how the bed height measured up to him and his classmates. Duffy said that the beds were designed specifically, so 24 students could easily stand around one bed. And each bed is handicapped accessible.

“Our goal was to get it done as quickly as possible, so they could have some kind of harvest in the fall,” Roy said. “[Duffy] has been a great partner to make this happen.”

Before packing up the equipment to go home, the Lowe’s staff members posed for a group picture, and motioned Duffy to join them. “You’re one of us now,” Roy said.

This Wednesday, the group will reunite with volunteers at Alta, followed by Kelly and Flanders elementary schools. Then, the fun really begins.

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