At Maple Street School, a garden has grown on the students

  • Maple School fifth grader Cooper Zapton tries to hold on to one of the 12 chickens that are in the Maple Gardens at the school on Thursday, May 23, 2019. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Maple School fifth grader Cooper Zapton tries to hold on to one of the 12 chickens that are in the Maple Gardens at the school on Thursday, May 23, 2019. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

Monitor staff
Published: 5/24/2019 5:40:16 PM

The idea of a living, breathing outdoor classroom at Maple Street School in Hopkinton emerged five years ago as a small herb garden where students and staff could go outside, observe nature and learn under the sun.

It took a little convincing of the principal at first, but over the years, Maple Gardens has grown to include raised beds loaded with vegetable plants, fruit trees, a natural amphitheater, a greenhouse and a chicken coop filled with a dozen birds.

The garden club at the school – which meets every Thursday – has blossomed from eight students to 47, with some of the sixth graders planning to come back next year when they are in middle school.

“We want to teach them life skills,” said Tracy Martin, the school’s office manager who planted the seed for the garden. “Being outside and off the computer is the best part of it.”

Slowly, the teachers and students traded their stiff classroom chairs for carpets of grass.

They traded the buzzing of overhead fluorescent lights for the hum of bumblebees.

They traded the still life in the art room for children drawing flowers blowing in the breeze in the pollinator garden.

By far, the stars of the garden are the dozen black sex-link and golden comet chickens that have roosted at the school for the past three years. They still produce five or six eggs a day, which are picked by students and later hard boiled or turned into breakfast sandwiches by the cafeteria staff.

Martin started doing research on what it required to raise, feed and keep a small flock of chickens. Maple Street School, which houses fourth through sixth grade, might be the only elementary school in New Hampshire with its own permanent flock.

“I looked around and I couldn’t find any other schools in New Hampshire who had chickens,” Martin said. “I found some schools in New York and I said ‘if they can do it New York, we can do it here.’ ”

Some staff members were initially concerned about salmonella and other risks to the children, but after checking with state officials and agricultural experts, they were assured all would be fine as long as the animals were regularly cared for and healthy.

Martin chose the breeds based on their heartiness and reputation for being friendly with humans. She picked them up when they were a day old and raised them on her dining room table.

“I’m not a crazy chicken lady, but I do love them,” Martin said. “If we didn’t have them, there’d be a lot of sad kids.”

Students were able to submit names for the chickens and once school staff discarded all the names like teriyaki and KFC, they came up with Maple, Midnight, Bessie, Honey, Pickles, Honk, and Gracie, to name a few.

A few of the chickens look alike, which can lead to some naming confusion. If someone asks Martin “which one is that?” and she can’t tell the difference, she just throws out a name and neither student nor chicken seems to mind if she’s wrong.

All 12 birds have stayed alive, but they won’t live forever. That’s a teachable moment waiting for the students down the road, Martin said.

This is the first year the students were able to start all their own seeds in the 8-by-12 foot greenhouse. The list of vegetables reads like a salad bar gone wild: Kale, cucumbers, zucchini, summer squash, radish, spinach, carrots, peppers and sunflowers.

They started a few hundred plants, and anything left over the children got to take home for their own gardens.

Everything the garden produces shows up in the cafeteria. Kale chips are always a hit, so are the pickles Martin makes, and the cherry tomatoes are gobbled up like candy.

The students seem more willing to eat the vegetables that they know came from the garden, Martin said.

The other day, a group of students was in the garden and one of them asked to try one of the chives. Then others started munching and soon the “bunches and bunches” of chives were mowed down.

“I was surprised to see how many of them ate them,” Martin said.

The greenhouse actually arrived last year but it didn’t get set up in time to get the plants started. Previously, the school received flats of plants and seeds from Sue Roberts of Roberts Greenhouse in Webster.

The entire garden – including picnic tables and benches – has thrived through donations, fundraisers and volunteer hours. The plants and chickens get fed and watered on weekends and throughout the summer by school families who sign up for shifts online. It works well, Martin said.

Most rewarding is seeing how the garden has grown on the students and has become a part of the school and used across the curriculum.

“I just want kids out in nature and learning the beauty of our own backyards,” Martin said.

“It’s part of our community here,” she added. “We’re trying to make every day natural for the kids.”

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