Many hands in the soil for Mystic Middle School gardening project

Many hands in the soil for Mystic Middle School gardening project


STONINGTON — “If you plant it, the bees will come.” That’s the philosophy of Noreen Kepple, of Stonington, a Master Gardener, who recently helped establish a vegetable, herb and flower pollinator garden at Mystic Middle School after her daughter, Jocelyn Kepple, a teacher there, requested help.

“I do not have a green thumb at all,” laughed Jocelyn, of Stonington, who will be a sixth-grade teacher this September and previously taught fifth grade at the school. She started a garden club for fifth graders two years ago and tried creating a garden behind the school, but it didn’t succeed as she had hoped.

This past school year, she reached out to her mother, who was trained at the University of Rhode Island’s School Garden Mentor Program. “My role is to be a mentor and to help guide the kids, but the leadership comes from Jocelyn,” said Noreen, who was the director of education at the Stonington Community Center for 33 years.

The project got off the ground, or into it, after the school gave permission to do the garden and the Parent Teacher Group provided materials for raised beds. “We put them together with the kids, built the beds, mixed the soil, planted the seeds,” said Jocelyn.

Some of the plants were also raised by master gardeners in a greenhouse at URI, which sponsors more than 90 school gardens throughout Rhode Island and Connecticut.

“They give us trays of veggies, herbs and pollinator plants,” Noreen said. “We get about four trays of plants that the volunteers take care of until the middle of May and then they’re passed to the mentors, so it’s a really nice collaboration between URI, the school, and then myself as someone representing URI.”

Working in a garden teaches children where their food comes from, she said. “The importance is for kids to see that their nutrition doesn’t come in a microwaveable already-processed package, they get to see the growth and planting and then they have ownership,” Noreen said. “I think it lays the groundwork for better nutrition.”

With the garden established in the front of the school, the Kepples applied for and received a $1,000 Feed A Bee grant from Bayer. The program, now in its third year, has worked with 117 partner organizations to plant more than 2 billion wildflowers across the United States. Mother and daughter said they were happy to get the money because they need to add more soil and buy mulch.

Growth is also happening in the school gardening club, as the original fifth grader members promote to other grades, said Jocelyn.

“We started with about 15 fifth graders and then we had some who came back as sixth graders in the club,” she said. “So now the original fifth graders will be seventh graders so we’re hoping to get them back with some of the sixth, and then some new fifth graders.”

The garden may also be used as a tool to teach science in the future, Jocelyn said.

“Eventually our vision is to create an outdoor classroom here,” she said. Teachers could use it “as an extension of what they do in the classroom; they do a lot with parts of the plant and pollinators in particular.”

The Kepples have weeded, watered and maintained the garden this summer but said they hoped some families would step up and volunteer to take a week or two next summer. In the fall, the duo will teach the children how to winterize the garden until the next growing season.

“In the fall, we were talking about having the kids put the garden to bed for the winter, get some more soil and chopped leaves to spread over the beds,” said Noreen. “We’ll meet with them a few times in the fall up until the first frost.”

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