Karen Eldred and the life of the garden in education

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Karen Eldred
RETIRED TEACHER Karen Eldred keeps students, families connected to the Earth.

THE TIMING worked out well on a clear day in late September. The fifth grade had planted garlic. Plans were set for braiding it for sale for next year’s class trip to Nature’s Classroom.

It’s a community effort. Shelburne Falls Farm and Garden had donated that garlic, and retired teacher Karen Eldred worked with a preschool teacher to cut sunflower heads — her students were about to line them up by size.

Timing is the key for success at the school gardens, where Eldred and a passel of school and community volunteers tend to herbs, vegetables, and flowers. There’s a bounty of education here as well as food for the table. Eldred spent a little time with the Flow recently to explain what the school’s eight gardens really grow…

Flow: We always see kids out here. It looks lovely.

Karen: Thank you, it is lovely. Jacqui Goodman’s [sixth-grade] class just came out and we cut up the sunflower stalks and added them to the compost bins; another preschool teacher came out and we decided what to do with the scarlet runner beans that we planted last year on big poles that a storm knocked over. We opened some up and they were just beautiful. And then we went through what she could do with them, whether it was eat them or save them for next year for crafts.

Flow: Do you plan activities class by class, or…

Karen: It works perfect! The timing was really good today. A couple of clases were expecting me, and others I ran into and it just worked. Ms. Funk and I talked about kale — her class is going to harvest kale over the next two weeks and the kitchen is going to make kale chips.

Flow: How is all this organized? Is this all volunteer effort?

Karen: All these beds are put in by the Garden Committee. We still need parents’ support. I’m here as a liaison, working with families and school and the gardens and the teachers.

I’ll do a little work with the kids in the classroom on what’s going to happen — this is instruction time — and with others it’s just random.
The preschool kids happened to just come out and they had their wagon with them. It was just coincidental. And then we took 15 to 20 minutes and did some instruction with them and cut some sunflowers.

Now I’m doing cleanup, which is hard to teach kids to do. This is fall cleanup and I’m just waiting for Becky’s [Becky Ecklund’s fifth-grade] class.

Flow: You said you’re looking for more help. What can community members do to help?

Karen: We’re looking for people to get involved. There are always things that can be donated. Right now we’re looking for bales of hay to mulch the garlic with. But we need a parent representative, which is what Emily Crehan was doing, and had been doing for a year. That would involve making flyers and organizing a date for a work crew. We need someone who can help with fundraising and grant writing – that’s a critical need right now.

We also need supplies and stipends. Red Gate Farm sends people down here and they get a stipend, I get a stipend, and we want to add Emily’s position as a stipend. It’s not a salary; it’s not anywhere near the hours that we work but it recognizes that this can’t be a purely voluntary thing if it’s going to work.

Flow: What are you hoping kids take from all this?

Karen: I want children to understand where their food comes from because children really don’t. I want children to get outside. They don’t get outside anywhere near as much as they should. There’s science involved; there’s math involved. Being able to make connections to the curriculum. Really connecting back to what used to be part of their lives and really isn’t anymore. Children really don’t know where their food comes from; children really aren’t getting outside and getting dirty. They don’t realize what compost is.

Flow: I’m surprised to hear that. I’d think, living around here, more kids would have a sense of the earth.

Karen: There’s a certain amount but it’s not like it used to be, where it was part of life.  Now it’s if a family chooses to garden and it’s kind of a hobby. And with some families, yeah, they do still grow their own potatoes and can their own food but there’s a lot who don’t. Everybody used to have a kitchen garden and that’s not true anymore.

Flow: Why is it important for kids, for families, to have this sense?

Karen: Well, it’s educational. It’s lifelong. It’s a lifelong connection to living. If you don’t grow your food, to at least realize when you walk into that supermarket where that potato came from, what the parts of a plant are, that the carrot is actually the root, that you’re actually eating the root… When you’re eating corn you’re eating seeds.

Flow: That’s a great vocabulary to have at your disposal too, to know how you’re supporting yourself with the planted life.

Karen: There’s this whole cycle that continues. We can either help it continue or we can asphalt it over. [Laughs]

Flow: So anyone can help in the gardens here? It doesn’t have to be a school parent or a teacher?

Karen: I’d love some community members. A master gardener would be really cool. I’m self-taught. My grandparents gardened, my mom gardened, I garden. In another lifetime I canned my own food. I worked with adolescents in residential care when I worked as a special-ed teacher and we used to have gardens and chickens and exhibit at the fair. [Those were] hard-core city kids who did really bad things and they’re finding a different part of themselves. Gardens are for everybody. These gardens are for everybody.

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