It takes a garden

Denise Heinrich waited 17 years to become a UConn Master Gardener. When she finally completed the classes this spring, she found a crop of enthusiastic, energetic preschool farmers ready to learn how to grow nutritious vegetables. 

The young farmers attend the Riverfront Children’s Center, a non-profit organization that has been in Groton for over 30 years. The center and students became Heinrich’s summer Master Gardener project.

“The mission of the center is to provide high-quality and affordable early childhood education while comprehensively nurturing the unique needs of our population of working low and moderate-income families throughout southeastern Connecticut,” says Kersten Elenteny, Riverfront’s development coordinator. “We try to address a broad range of challenges these families face, from mental and emotional services support to diapers and food from our food pantry.”

Over 90 percent of the 160 children who attend the center qualify for reduced tuition rates. Families enrolled in the tuition assistance program are living at or below 75 percent of the federal poverty rate. According to the center, 59 percent of its families make less than $30,000 per year; 36 percent make less than $20,000 per year.

In 2017, Riverfront made nutrition education a focal point with its children, families and staff. Grant funds from multiple sources made it possible to resurrect an overgrown and underutilized garden and to launch the Farm to Preschool initiative, which emphasizes local agriculture and good nutrition.

Ledge Light Health District’s small grant required that a UConn Master Gardener help with the gardening, and Heinrich jumped at the opportunity once she talked with Riverfront staff and inspected the garden.

“I’m a mom of three and a Grammie of six,” says Heinrich, who lives near Hebron. “The site is a marvel — it has six raised beds, waist-height, encircled by large granite walls in the back.”

Heinrich took charge of resurrecting the beds, deciding what to plant, led cleanups, plantings and weeding. In the process, she’s become the center’s gardening muse.

“It truly has been a labor of love from a number of community groups,” Elenteny says. “We had a Comcast Cares Day, Pfizer employees came on other days, the local Rotary Club is helping with fall clean-up, our own parents helped weed the gardens, with Denise’s oversight.”

Cherry tomatoes and sunflowers thrived this summer and were big hits with the little gardeners. Heinrich taught preschoolers, staff and parents about companion cropping of flowers and herbs with vegetables to encourage beneficial insects, and the merits of composting.

“It’s been so gratifying to see the preschoolers coming out to help me in the garden, to pick their grape tomatoes and ask me so many questions about plants, bugs, everything,” she says.

“I just felt this project was a perfect fit. Our mission is to get horticulture education outreach into the greater community,” says Paul Armond, UConn Master Gardener Coordinator, New London County. A Cooperative Extension Service nutritionist was already working with Riverfront staff and families, so when the center contacted Armond, things fell into place. 

The project has become a UConn Master Gardener signature project. This means at least one graduating Master Gardener will be guiding the garden next summer. Plans include a Toddler Garden and more vegetables to grow and taste.

Although Heinrich has paid her horticultural dues by completing this outreach project, she’s not going away as a volunteering Master Gardener.

“I’ve already told them, 'You’ve got me forever,'" says Heinrich, who will be the guest of honor at Riverfront’s annual fundraiser Saturday night. Proceeds from the event, themed this year as a Farm-to-Table Gala, fund the center’s tuition support of eligible families.

See Rivercenter’s young gardeners and their garden at


If you go

What: Farm-to-Table Gala, to benefit Riverfront Children’s Center

When: 6-10 p.m. Saturday

Where: The Velvet Mill, 22 Bay Ave., Stonington

Features: Catered by Gourmet Galley, music by Chris MacKay and the ToneShifters

Tickets: $125 tickets

For tickets: Visit





Loading comments...
Hide Comments