It’s a weekday in early May, and longtime Cambridge Elementary School volunteer Georgia Gomez-Ibanez is solitarily tending the vegetable garden near the playground.
She has planted seeds already — lettuce and arugula, carrots and potatoes, snap peas and beets. She waters them, anticipating green sprouts that will soon appear.
Gomez-Ibanez is spending almost every day working in the garden and school forest. But this spring is not a normal season for the garden, Gomez-Ibanez said.
“What’s really different is I’m not planting with kids,” she said.
With the schools closed until at least June 30 due to COVID-19, Cambridge students are no longer helping care for their school gardens.
But school staff is still looking after these spaces, making sure they’re ready for students when they return.
The Blue Jay garden was put in two years ago, between the playground structures behind the school building. It has previously been behind the Cambridge Community Pool.
At this time of year, Gomez-Ibanez said, students are usually helping to plant seeds and water. But now she’s alone.
“She carries the load,” CES Principal Chris Holt said. “We’re really thankful that she does. It’s really, really important.”
“I’m the only gardener at this point,” Gomez-Ibanez said. “And that’s too bad, because kids really like doing that.”
“They want to help, they’re eager to help,” she continued.
Every fall, kindergarten students pick produce from the garden, and make Stone Soup, a veggie soup based on a fairy tale. This is part of Chef in the Classroom, a Cambridge Farm to School program, where kids get the chance to cook with local chef Gene Gowan.
“It’s just a fun thing and their eyes light up,” Gomez-Ibanez said.
The vegetables grown in the garden are also used for classroom snacks and given to the food service department for Try It Tuesday, a weekly program that offers healthy options during lunch for students to try.
Students are allowed to come into the garden at recess, to pick and eat any produce they can find.
“They like those vegetables when they pick them themselves and pop them in their mouths,” Gomez-Ibanez said.
During the summer, students from PleasanTime day care and CAP C.A.R.E. get the chance to pick and eat veggies as well.
All of these programs depend on starting the garden in the spring, despite the school closure.
“If we didn’t do it now, there wouldn’t be a garden in September,” Gomez-Ibanez said.
Gomez-Ibanez says she’s “hopeful” students will be able to return to school in-person this fall, and use the garden then.
“I enjoy gardening and I am looking forward to having it ready for the kids,” she said.
Gomez-Ibanez said the garden has about 20 beds, which include produce, perennial herbs like mint and chives, and flowers like sunflowers, marigolds and zinnias.
She’s also been raising tender plants on her own porch, like broccoli, peppers, basil and parsley. She’ll transplant them to the garden in mid-May, she said
Gomez-Ibanez is missing the fun students have in the garden, she said. She said she has seen students try all sorts of produce, including rolling lettuce and herbs together to make a “roll-up sandwich.”
“They’re pretty inventive,” Gomez-Ibanez said.
Severson Learning Center
The Severson Learning Center, the Cambridge School District’s 82-acre school farm on Oakland Road, also has a collection of student-planted gardens.
SLC director Adam Gould said two raised bed gardens were installed at the SLC last week behind the modular school building there that’s normally used for Koshkonong Trails charter school. Gould also said the SLC plants an annual vegetable garden east of the modular building.
Gould said a majority of the produce from the vegetable garden is donated to the Cambridge Food Pantry in the fall.
“And now more than ever that’s very important,” he said.
Usually, Gould said, the vegetable garden is planted by students and staff at Koshkonong Trails. The SLC also usually hires interns to work out at the property every summer.
With students out of the building for the rest of the year, and hiring interns on hold until at least June 30, Gould will take on all that planting.
“We’ve got some gaps to fill for sure,” Gould said.
Gould added he enjoys gardening, and doesn’t mind doing the work.
“The concern is, with not knowing when volunteers are going to be able to go out there...If it gets to be too big, it gets to be too much work for just a couple people to handle,” Gould said.
Gould said the vegetable garden has been reduced in size by about a fourth this year, to accommodate the labor shortage. The SLC is also undergoing several renovation projects this summer, making the garden smaller a bonus.
Gould has already planted potatoes and onions, he said. He enjoys gardening and takes it as a mark of the season change.
“It’s something you do in the spring, you start the garden,” Gould said.
Like Gomez-Ibanez, Gould is hoping students can return in the fall, and use the fruits of his labor.
“You have to hope for the best,” Gould said. “It’s just important that we stay optimistic and we believe that the kids will have a chance to use these fruits and vegetables.”
The district has smaller gardens at Cambridge Elementary School and the SLC as well. The Cambridge Community Activities Program has a garden behind the pool where pumpkins are grown for the annual Dunkin for Pumpkins event in October.
And Cambridge Farm to School has a perennial edibles garden with raspberry bushes at the SLC. They’re collecting more plants right now.
The goal of these gardens, Gould and Gomez-Ibanez agree, is to help students learn about food and nature.
“Not every kid has a yard with a garden,” Gomez-Ibanez said. “I think it’s important for kids to experience things.”
“It’s really important that kids know where their food comes from,” Gould said. “I think it’s pretty powerful for kids to see that.”
“It doesn’t come from the grocery store. It has to be grown,” Gomez-Ibanez agreed. “It’s all good learning.”