How a Garden Grows

Preschoolers at the Old Lyme Children's Learning Center stand in the 'Edible Courtyard' they have been tending all summer.  Photos by  Sean D. Elliot/The Day
Preschoolers at the Old Lyme Children's Learning Center stand in the "Edible Courtyard" they have been tending all summer. Photos by Sean D. Elliot/The Day

Old Lyme - A morning of yard labor at the Old Lyme Children's Learning Center one sunny September day yielded nine cherry tomatoes, one cucumber, one yellow squash, and a nice, round watermelon.

Not bad for a group of 3- to 5-year-olds. Later that day, the 12 preschoolers at the learning center would cut up the watermelon and have it as a refreshing afternoon snack.

The "Edible Courtyard," as the center's new organic vegetable garden is called, was created this summer thanks to a $1,000 grant from the Lyme/Old Lyme Education Foundation.

The idea to plant a vegetable garden as a teaching tool came from Lyme resident and horticulturist Anu Koiv, started the garden project with the help of four high-school sophomores, including her son.

The goal was to give the preschoolers a hands-on opportunity "to learn about how food is grown, healthy eating, and ecology through the use of composting and rain collection," according to the education foundation's August newsletter.

"To know how a pea grows, and a tomato," Koiv said. "You don't just get it at a supermarket."

"I think we saw it as an opportunity to do something that would involve nature and science and to provide something for this younger educational audience," said foundation president Richard Korsmeyer.

So far, the little gardeners, who check on the garden every morning, have helped tend to tomato, zucchini, eggplant, watermelon, parsley, basil, and pea plants.

"They'll go out and see which things are getting ripe," said Betsey Fazzina, head preschool teacher.

The garden, planted on raised beds, has been so fertile the students have already picked enormously ripe zucchinis and cucumbers, staff members at the center said.

"This garden is amazing," Alison Zanardi, the center's director, said. "People have told us their gardens have failed. Not us."

On this Thursday morning, 5-year-old David Evers noticed a pumpkin that had appeared in the garden overnight.

"I know, can you believe it?" Fazzina joked. Koiv had brought the pumpkin over that morning from her own garden. "It grew overnight."

Koiv has plans to start a compost pile, purchase a water barrel to collect rain, and even get a cold frame to start planning early in the season. She's also introducing fruits such as strawberries and hopes to get high school clubs to help build an arbor for grapes.

"The program is a great example of our goal of supporting innovative educational programs throughout our communities, not just in the public schools," said Jean Wilczynski, who is on the foundation's grant committee.

Even the toddlers at the center are helping out. The 18-month-olds to 2-year-olds collected worms that they'd dug up from under the mulch in the play area and placed them in the garden to help keep the soil fertile, Fazzina said.

"So it's a group effort," Zanardi said.

The students all love the
cucumbers; one boy took a whole
cucumber and chomped right on it, Zanardi said.

Surprisingly, only about a third of the students will eat tomatoes, Fazzina said.

"One kid [said], 'I don't like potatoes,'" Fazzina said. "'But they're tomatoes,' I said. 'Yeah, and I don't like potatoes.'"

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