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When gardening is so much cooler than recess

Handpicked by the young students at Bennett-Hemen-way Elementary School in Natick, vegetables such as tomatoes and peppers end up in their school lunches.

Michele McDonald for the Boston Globe

Handpicked by the young students at Bennett-Hemen-way Elementary School in Natick, vegetables such as tomatoes and peppers end up in their school lunches.

NATICK — “Dude, look at this tomato; it’s almost ready!”

This isn’t a tattooed 20-something at a farmers’ market speaking, but an excited fourth grader at the Bennett-Hemenway Elementary School (known as Ben-Hem), where an innovative garden has become a beloved community resource for kids, teachers, and parents.

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During the second day of the new school year, fourth-graders couldn’t possibly look happier to be interacting with the garden’s bounty of fruits, vegetables, and flowers. Forget the proverbial “candy store.” For these Natick kids, the garden is sweet enough.

The Bennett-Hemenway “Seed to Harvest” program started in June 2012 with the construction of nine raised beds on school grounds, funded by a grant from the Natick Education Foundation. The project was spearheaded by two community members who have children in the school system — Kathy Cappellano, a registered dietitian and member of the Natick Public School’s School Health Advisory Committee, and Maureen McMahon, who has an extensive background in food preparation and management.

In addition to flowers like zinnias and marigolds, the impressive garden features kale, purple cauliflower, various kinds of tomatoes (including tiny and delicious “red currant tomatoes”), carrots, radishes, a number of herbs, even edible nasturtiums. All of the plants come from New England farms that offered them for free, while most of the perennial flowers were donated by parents. This June, Chris Pacheco of Metrowest Irrigation Co. installed an underground irrigation system without charge, so parent volunteers no longer needed to water the garden as they did last summer. Students are welcome to pluck ripe fruits and veggies to sample as they please, and even bring home their modest harvests. This summer, four families who won a silent auction benefited from a garden share.

Girls picked parsley from the herb part of the garden, while the boys in the background looked for raspberries.

Michele McDonald for the Boston Globe

Girls picked parsley from the herb part of the garden, while the boys in the background looked for raspberries.

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During the school year, the garden becomes a teaching tool as different grades interact in different ways. Second-graders, for example, handle donations to a local food pantry; kindergartners sketch sunflowers with art teacher Bree Curtis, who uses them in a unit on Van Gogh. “The third grade is going to learn about the Pilgrims,” explains McMahon, “so we planted squash, corn, and beans.” Everybody is in agreement that the garden provides an educational respite from the conventional indoor classroom.

“This is so much funner than plain recess,” says Lucas Shaver, 9. “Like this is so much better.”

But because of curriculum-related time constraints, kids in the after-school program get the most hands-on time planting, weeding, and testing soil, says Cappellano. Nevertheless, the whole school is invested in the garden’s success. Cappellano and McMahon conducted a cafeteria vote about what the students wanted to see in the plots, and most of the front-runners — carrots, tomatoes, strawberries — have thrived. No one has yet found a “pizza plant,” which students wanted. But with abundant basil and tomatoes, they’re not so far off from the idea.

Back in the school cafeteria, kids are eating what you might expect to see. A donation from food service provider Aramark allows students to compost their food scraps in the school’s courtyard. And on their trays, beside wan-looking hot dogs, are piles of freshly picked parsley, which they genuinely can’t seem to get enough of. And which no doubt improves the taste of their meals.

Walking into the cafeteria, two spirited youngsters are comparing radishes. “I took out the best radish!” says one.

“No, that’s nothing compared to my radish,” counters the other.

It’s a schoolyard game for 2013.

Luke Pyenson can be reached at lukepyenson@gmail.com.
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