Rose Ferrigno has gardening in her blood. Her grandfather was a vegetable farmer and her father owned a produce business while she was growing up. So it was a natural jump for Rose to think about bringing together her two loves -- gardens and kids -- while teaching kindergarten at the Montowese Elementary School, in North Haven, Connecticut.
Rose has been a teacher at the school for 38 years. Six years ago she looked around the school grounds and had the idea of starting an outdoor container garden in a small space between two classrooms. "I was disappointed when the school planted a tree in that space and secretly hoped the tree wouldn't make it," she admits. As fate would have it, the tree died, and Rose was given the land to start the school's first garden.
Help from NGA and Friends
What started as a small container garden has turned into a raised bed vegetable garden, butterfly garden, and extensive bulb planting, expanding beyond the small area she was originally given. As an NGA member, Rose has used National Gardening's resources to further her cause. "With the help of National Gardening Association's Youth Garden Grant, we received the tools, plants, and seeds we needed to expand the gardens and really make them part of the classroom activities," says Rose. "Then we received your Dutch Bulb Grant that enabled us to beautify the school grounds and expand the gardens even further, planting hundreds of spring flowering bulbs," she adds.
The local community also got excited and involved. A local power company had a grant program that awarded Rose a composter to use for vegetable waste and help teach kids about soil and recycling. The North Haven Garden Club, together with parents and even former students, helped care for the garden in summer and taught special topic classes for the kids, such as how to make fragrant soap from chocolate mint leaves.
But this is more than just a pretty garden for kids to play in. Rose uses the plants to teach many of the required topics in the kindergarten curriculum. "When we do our color curriculum, matching words with colors, we're in the garden looking for different colors. When we are learning about numbers, kids are measuring plants. When we are learning about writing my kids use observation skills and start looking for the seedlings to sprout from seeds they've planted," says Rose.
The class has made many different foods from the harvest in the garden too. "We have made salsa from the tomatoes, peppers, and tomatillos; and bagel pizzas using various herbs. It expands the kids' palettes," she says. Often they take plants and food home and inspire their parents to start their own gardens.
The gardens also are a way to relieve tension and stress for Rose and the students. Since the kindergarten is an all-day program, the kids need a place to rejuvenate themselves. Being in the garden helps relieve tension and anxiety, while getting fresh air, exercise, and sunshine. It's especially helpful for Rose because she suffers from MS. "I get fatigued and tired easily and need to watch myself in the sun due to my medication," she says. The garden is a place for her to just relax.
"When my spirits need a lift, I go out to the garden, and as soon as I do, my concerns and worries seem to disappear. I talk to my plants and tell them how much they mean to me. My kindergarten students laugh when I tell them how I speak to the plants," she says. Even though she has to limit her time in the garden, her doctor says that gardening is keeping her young.
Growing Towards the Future
Her kinder garden has become so popular that parents are requesting their young children to be in Rose's class because they know the garden will be part of the curriculum. In many cases, Rose has taught the older siblings in these families, and the younger ones often come along to help even before they're in school. "By the time the young ones are school age, they expect to be gardening when they're in my class because they've seen their older brothers and sisters doing it. To them it's just part of the fabric of kindergarten life," says Rose.
Rose is planning on retiring next year, but she's working hard to make the garden and related activities a part of the ongoing kindergarten curriculum. "I'll still be around volunteering and helping because I gain as much from the garden as the kids do," she adds.