Concord Elementary School

Where vegetables sprout (and kids, too)

Concord Elementary School fourth-graders learn about seeds and fall planting from Oregon Master Naturalist Maggie Thornton (Photo: Lynn Ketchum)

MILWAUKIE – Kids may not love finding a squash on their dinner plate. But when that squash is growing on a leafy vine in their school garden, it can be an object of delight. “Hey, this looks like a UFO!” declares one fourth-grader at Concord Elementary School, holding up a white, disk-shaped squash called a patty pan. Exclaims another, “The tiny tomatoes hanging on this branch look like raindrops — like it’s raining tomatoes!”

Poetry in Motion

It’s as if a bunch of pint-sized poets have been unleashed on this autumn day in Milwaukie, a Portland suburb. The metaphors and similes are as plentiful as the tomatoes here in the Willamette Valley ecoregion. “This looks like a witch’s nose!” one boy says, holding up a red orb with a hooked protrusion. “Look!” a girl calls out, dangling five or six bean pods in front of her chin. “I have a beard of beans!”

Set loose in the school garden at harvest time, the students’ imaginations are on overdrive. But amid the chaos, the kids are learning about the art of gardening. Teaching them to pull weeds, prep soil and sow seeds for cool-weather vegetables is Maggie Thornton, an OSU alum and Oregon Master Naturalist participant. “I like the way the program ties everything together — vegetation, geology, climate,” she says. “It recaptures the idea of the citizen scientist.”

With a bucketful of tools and a pocketful of seed packets, Thornton attracts clusters of kids like crape myrtle attracts honeybees. Growing things is, for her, “just a very natural part of life.” She’s been gardening since she was old enough to toddle around the family plot in Bend where she grew up. So a few years ago when her daughter’s first-grade class was growing sunflower seeds in jars for a science project, she was taken aback by the kids’ astonishment at seeing seeds germinate and sprout for the first time. “It was shocking and sad to see how many of them had no idea how nature works,” she recalls. “I decided I wanted to help get kids outside and connected to the natural world.” As the marketing manager for a horticulture company, she started a program to help schools put in gardens.

Wrangling Weeds

She stands back from the hubbub to watch the fourth-graders dig seed troughs for packets of radishes and turnips, wrangle with stubborn weeds, and shriek over the occasional slug or daddy longlegs. “It’s amazing and gratifying to see their reactions,” Thornton says. “They’re so joyful. They’re so delighted to be outdoors.”

Some of the kids have even made the connection between growing veggies and eating them. “You can slice up that patty pan and fry it in butter,” one girl observes. “It’s really good!”

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