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Natural Awakenings Fairfield & Southern Litchfield Counties

In the Garden with Pam Sloane of G.I.V.E: Green Initiative for Vegetables in Education Grows in Stamford Schools

Feb 24, 2011 05:50PM ● By Nancy Cohen

Pam Sloane believes gardens are meant to enrich body and spirit. She always loved gardening. Raised in the Bronx, she connected with nature at a relative’s 5-acre farm, complete with barnyard animals, home-grown vegetables and fresh cow’s milk. This childhood experience had a strong impact and was the impetus behind her creating an informal garden club at the Stamford school where she taught French. Originally, she simply planted bulbs and perennials to "beautify" the grounds and introduce middle school children to gardening.

Pam and colleague, Andrea Wiesner, then created Dolan Middle School’s vegetable garden project. Inspired by the edible schoolyard of Alice Waters, the intention was to strengthen students' connections to their environment and food. Their process involved trial and error and research. They initially planted too much, then not enough, learning from their mistakes and the guidance of a master gardener as they proceeded. Although some students know about gardening and earth-grown foods, many do not. Dolan’s after-school garden club is changing that awareness.

The Dolan group meets year-round. During winter, students continue learning about (and working with) vegetables, cooking soups, frittata, fritters, pasta primavera, and more. Meetings involve food preparation and meal sharing, peel-collecting for compost, and discussing future gardening.Students are invited to participate (and share the yield) throughout the summer when Pam and Andrea water, weed, and harvest weekly. They may make salads with fresh produce like basil, tomatoes, lettuce, and zucchini. Occasionally they freeze items for use in autumn soups. Nothing is wasted. More harvesting and fall crop planting occur when school re-opens. Other teachers also utilize the garden for education, including visits for poetry-writing.

"I was introduced to gardening in 8th grade at Dolan and loved it. Ever since, now as a 10th grader, I still come back and help out. I am now starting a gardening club at my high school, Stamford High, and I can't wait to see how that works out."  ~ Karlos Mikem, student and Dolan Garden Club mentor

Upon retirement in 2009, convinced more schools would benefit from on-site vegetable gardens and wanting to help them get started, Pam created G.I.V.E. - the Green Initiative for Vegetables in Education. G.I.V.E.’s objective is to support the establishment of vegetable gardens in Stamford schools from start-up to harvest. It aims to highlight the need to nurture the earth, stay “in touch” with how food is produced, and help students experience the growing process from seed to table. Monthly meetings offer information-sharing and support.

“The Master Gardeners are motivated to help with the GIVE program. We aim to bring news and action about good gardening practices and wholesome growing to the community. It is very special to work with young ones and share with them the wonder of the natural world. Seeing the face of a child who has just bitten in to a carrot or tomato fresh from the garden is an amazing experience. We hope to help folks connect with the soil and learn where our food really comes from.”  ~ Regina Campfield, Master Gardener Program Coordinator, Bartlett Arboretum and Gardens

Like caring for a pet, G.I.V.E. involves voluntary year-long commitment from all parties. “It has to be an act of the heart and mind and body.” The program may be integrated into the curriculum or optional as an after-school club . Each garden and/or club is unique and based on the needs and wishes of the particular school and age group. Pam considers Dolan’s garden a sample, rather than model, since the appropriate garden type will differ per school. Participating schools organize their own plans and funding. Project ownership is important to long-term success. Some start with one or two raised beds, while others have the wherewithal for larger gardens. Pam and/or local master gardeners offer start-up help if requested.

 “No one fails at gardening...if something doesn't grow, then you step back, assess and try again. It's always exciting to taste what we've grown. Many of the students then go on to garden with their families.”  ~ Sandy Palley-Brandt, Newfield School

Community involvement is a cornerstone for G.I.V.E. schools and Pam has been delighted by the enthusiasm and contributions offered. The City of Stamford supplies free compost. One former Dolan student, a carpenter, is available for hire to construct raised beds. Stamford Garden Club, a strong supporter of G.I.V.E., has offered a challenge to participating schools, providing lettuce-growing starter kits, with top plants to be entered in their May garden show. Master gardeners trained through Bartlett Arboretum share their expertise (“our little encyclopedias”). Stamford Museum and Nature Center offers nature classes and manure. Tree services deliver wood chips. Stamford teachers, parents, and the superintendent of schools contribute time and/or support. And that’s only a sampling… The project has become a connector of people and resources, helping grow not only gardens, but relationships that deepen community.

“At its simplest form a garden teaches students the cycles and balances of nature. Seeds are sowed, plants grow, are harvested, and then composted to make nutrient rich soil for the next year's growth. The students also learn the importance of a healthy balance of sun and rain. While gardens need both, too much of either can be detrimental.”
~ Jeff Gruetzner, Teacher, Springdale Elementary School

Pam wants to see gardens become a natural element at every school, similar to playgrounds or playing fields. “Vegetable gardens on school property...How else will our children understand the role of the earth in the production of our food, learn to nurture the earth and protect it and the life forms it sustains that are essential for our survival?” Lack of connection to the earth may initially evoke fear. “Should we kill it?” is often the first question upon worm-sighting. Pam is grateful for such “teaching moments” when she can show how gardens are about living, not killing. “We need to understand what these creatures contribute to the well-being of the soil so that we can appreciate the importance of their existence to our own. They have been around for hundreds of thousands of years. We’re the newbies.”

Gardening includes pleasure in the harvest and children’s responses as they garner new insights. Pam tells of a child transplanting a tiny, hair-like carrot seedling. Her excited proclamation “It smells like a carrot!” motivated a group rush to smell it, awakening senses and connecting with food’s origins. Pam philosophizes “Actually seeing, picking and eating something you have had a hand in growing is a small miracle. It is delightful – as an observer and as a participant. It’s magic.” And it’s not just plants that blossom. “Kids talk. They sit and dig and chat with each other. Sometimes they just walk around. It’s calm. It’s free from any distracting technology. It’s a chance to connect to the earth in a most basic way. To feel the sunshine or the damp or the texture of soil, to watch water trickle into the soil, to see a plant perk up when the water touches its leaves, to examine a tiny seedling they are transplanting and recognize the future mature form in miniature.”

To contribute, Pam (currently a master gardening student) advocates adopting a school or asking yours what’s needed. Her goal? 100% participation of Stamford schools. Additionally, she suggests viewing Barbara Pleasant’s Starter Vegetable Gardens and Edward Smith’s The Vegetable Gardener's Bible.

According to Pam, G.I.V.E.’s bottom line is to make learning fun and a natural part of life. “Teach a skill that is lifelong and also valuable to the mind, the spirit, and the body. What could be better?”

For more information about starting a school vegetable garden, contact [email protected],, or visit

"Dolan Garden Club has taught me how to connect to the earth. Just watching something appear from the earth that I have nurtured is like creating life."
~ Kelly Vukelic, former Dolan Middle School student and a Dolan Garden Club mentor


 “The love of gardening was instilled in me as a young child by my parents. Many of my students do not have the opportunity to experience gardening first hand. As an art teacher I am stepping out of the boundaries of the art room to share my passion for gardening with them. In the next few weeks we will begin our journey together planting some of our vegetable seeds indoors. Using art and literacy to make connections to the second grade science curriculum about plant life, my students will keep journals to chronicle the life cycle of plants through pictures and stories. We will then wait for that perfect spring day to transplant the seedlings to our Springdale School garden.”
~ Susan Ramsey, Art Teacher, Springdale Elementary School

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