Get Involved! Musings

GO: Get Outside

The beauty of April is that we are all stir crazy and it becomes extremely enjoyable to spend time outdoors.  The signs of spring continue to accumulate, weather warms up enough to make pick-up sports enjoyable, and the sun is still up when we get out of work in the evening.   I couldn’t have agreed more when the Children and Nature Network declared April “Let’s G.O.! (Get  Outside) Month.”

Today I coordinated a School Garden Work Day in East Somerville.  We replaced rotting wooden raised garden bed frames with sturdy recycled plastic timber beds salvaged from the old East Somerville School garden.  A reporter from the Somerville Journal covering the event asked me a seemingly simple question: “Why is this good for the children?”

I thought for a moment, and asked for clarification: “Why are school gardens good for children, or why is it beneficial for them to participate in today’s work day today?”  I knew my answer for the first possibility, but hadn’t really thought about the second.

“Why is it good for students to be here today,” she clarified.

I quickly realized that I had many answers.  Youth in the city have very few opportunities to do outdoor manual work with tools.  Shoveling dirt with shovels can provide infinite learning experiences: what happens when I toss the dirt through the air? How can I get more dirt with each scoop? How much is too much – can I lift the bucket I filled?  Beyond the learning experiences, it is also a great opportunity for physical activity and strength building.

The great thing about team work and physical tasks is that we can see, very quickly, the results of our labor.  We started with empty garden beds and a mountain of soil.  By the end of the day, the beds were full and the pile was gone.  Dirt was smeared across our faces, and our arms complained when we tried to pick up heavy things as we cleaned up and prepared to leave.  The space was transformed and improved, and we were the ones who did it!  Participating in this event provided all workers – young and old – with learning opportunities, two hours of physical activity, a chance to improve the school grounds, proof in the power of team work, and a huge sense of accomplishment upon completion of our task.

I encourage everyone – youth and adults – to find opportunities to work and play outside this month.  If you’re looking for events or places to get outside or engage in a community improvement project, here are a few suggestions:

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Boiled Down: A Maple Recap

By the end of the Boil Down weekend, I was barely able to speak in complete sentences.  I managed to take the following notes, which still sum up our season’s success quite well:

Friday: Boiled from 7:30am-10:30pm, had 260 students, and about 60 adult visitors over the course of the day.  Cold weather!
Saturday: Boiled from 8:30am-9:30pm, had about 500 visitors despite rainy weather.  Waffles and hot drinks were a hit.  Tons of families dressed in great raincoats and boots and colorful umbrellas.  Finished off Friday’s syrup on a burner near the evaporator.
Sunday: Finished off and canned from 9am-4pm, finished off Saturday’s syrup, canned Friday’s and Saturday’s batches.  Yield: 3 gallons.

Since photos, it is said, say more than a 1000 words, here are a few from the weekend:

Third snow of the year? On the first day of the Maple Boil Down in March? The first field trip group gathers at the Growing Center.
"Does anyone know what this tool is called?" "A Therminator!" "Well, that's close..." Learning about temperature, evaporation, and fire in a city park...with MAPLE SAP!

…and then the camera went away for our rainy Saturday morning entertaining…

The sun breaks through the evaporating steam to keep the afternoon and evening enjoyable for those tending the fire
Well, maybe it was grilling food AND the sun that kept us going!
Finishing off: The final day of our marathon from the comfort of home.
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You’re invited: Maple Syrup Boil Down Festival

Join Groundwork Somerville on March 3rd at the Somerville Community Growing Center for the annual Somerville Maple Syrup Project Boil Down!   Community members of all ages are invited to 22 Vinal Avenue between 10am and 2pm to watch and learn as sap from local sugar maple trees is boiled down into pure maple syrup over a warm fire.  Attendees can expect to enjoy syrup-tasting, children’s music by the Animal Farm, kids’ activities, demonstrations, and much more! Waffles, syrup, hot drinks and Somerville Maple Syrup Project T-shirts will be on sale.

At 11am and 12noon, Animal Farm will be entertaining Boil Down Festival guests!   Animal Farm is a Boston-based trio of musicians and educators whose lively performances entertain and engage children ages 3 to 103! Each thirty minute show will be a colorful blend of original music, storytelling, hilarious antics and games.

Hope to see you there!

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The Boil Down Approaches

Today while sitting at my desk, I took a moment to mentally step back from the hourly coordination craziness that happens during the syruping season.  Assessing the overall progress of the Somerville Maple Syrup Project this year made me much more positive after a morning of creative crisis management.

Groundwork Interns and Staff Help Tap

Sap collection is going at full throttle despite strange winter conditions.  We filled locally available freezer storage space and are now filling up the walk-in refrigerator at the Winter Hill School.  We have volunteers committed to collecting the accumulated sap each day of the week and an intern working to manage this piece of the project.

Students act out the layers of a tree trunk

Education sessions are in their final week in 20 classrooms across the city.  They’re powered by 19 volunteer educators and a second intern, and they’ve have gone on despite an onslaught of recent sickness.  Our Maple Education intern has run two of four “Maple-y” children’s workshops at the Somerville Public Library, which are free and open to 5-9 year olds.

All permits, an added urban complication to sugar making (must have Public Event, Fire, and Temporary Food Service Permits), are in place for the Boil Down Festival.  A third intern is working on planning this time and energy intensive event and creating a manual so the project can be more easily coordinated in future years!

Want to be part of the collective energy, learning opportunities, and fun?  Here’s how you can get involved or help out:
– Families, attend the  Maple-y Workshops at the Library!
– Volunteer to help make the Boil Down Festival a success – volunteers needed March 2nd, 3rd, and the week of March 5th. Email
– Sponsor the Boil Down Festival – last year Groundwork Somerville drew over 700 people to the Growing Center for this event; do you want them to know about your business or come to your store or restaurant after the event? Email
– Print and post the Boil Down Festival Flier in your neighborhood, office, or school
– RSVP and invite your friends to the Boil Down Festival on facebook

Hope to see you on March 3rd!

School Gardens

Meet Your Farmer

How do you get eggs from a chicken if they don’t want to give them to you? Is it hot working on a farm? Are cucumbers fruits or vegetables? Do you have to catch the animals to get them on the farm? Does chocolate milk come from brown cows? Can we grow bananas in Somerville?  Strawberries?

I am always in awe at the enthusiastic curiosity of elementary students.  I had the pleasure of answering questions like these, and many more, during an event I recently coordinated entitled “Meet Your Farmer.”

In a team with Farm School Farmer David Graham, we visited six classrooms over the course of the day.  David contributed stories and experiences from working on a farm and I offered my expertise gained from working in city gardens during each classroom visit.  With each group, we helped students develop a more concrete and respectful vision of the farming occupation. Our goal was to increase their appreciation for the work it takes to produce food.  One of my main roles was to  make sure to connect our learning to actions we can all take in Somerville in the likely case that families can’t bring students out to farms in the suburbs.

What can we do in a city as densely populated as Somerville?  First, we need to figure out where one could even find space to safely grow vegetables.  As a group, the students brainstormed ideas ranging from backyards, to community gardens, to pots in a window, to their school garden.  (For adults considering backyard gardening, make sure to test your soil for heavy metals first!). We then learned that organic gardening is especially important in our community because it offers much needed habitat for important living things including decomposers, pollinators, predatory insects and birds.  There’s very little space in Somerville for these critters to find food, shelter, water, and friends, making urban gardening’s impacts greater than often is expected.

Next we brainstormed a list of fruits and vegetables that we would like to grow in our school garden.  We learned that many tropical plants can’t grow in Somerville.  We even might have to rule out space hogs like pumpkins and zucchinis if growing in small back yards.  Luckily, we learned that we can grow almost all of the favorite fruits and vegetables brainstormed at the beginning of the lesson.   At the end of the program, we all got to sample several slices of MA-grown Macintosh apples.  We liked how they were crunchy, sweet, and sour at the same time.  It was also cool that they were grown at a farm in our own state.

It’s that time adults!  Do you want to grow for yourself this season?  No matter where you live, you can grow food.  And if you find yourself brimming with questions, feel free to post them below and I’ll see if I can answer them for you!  You may also find the series of “Backyard Gardening” posts I made last year helpful if starting a garden for the first time.

Check out the groups that made this event possible!  “Meet Your Farmer” was coordinated by Groundwork Somerville and funded by Massachusetts Agriculture in the Classroom.  Additional partnering with Somerville Food ServicesUMass Extension Nutrition Education Program, and East Somerville Community School made everything possible.  Also check out the press the program got in the Somerville News and the Somerville Patch!

Answers to introductory questions: -Chickens rarely fight you for their eggs, though if a hen is broody (if she wants to hatch her eggs into chicks), you may have to reach under her with thick leather gloves. -It’s often hot in the summer, but it’s cold in the winter.  We dress for the seasons, like you do when you play outside.  -The animals on the farm were born there; they’re the babies of cows and chickens we already had. -Brown cows make normal white milk.  If you add chocolate and sugar, you get chocolate milk.  -Bananas don’t grow in Somerville because they die in the winter, but strawberries do!

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Maple Tapping Time

Supporters or the Somerville Maple Syrup will be tapping sugar maple trees on the Tufts Campus this Thursday January 26th at 3pm.  Families, neighbors, students, and anyone interested in participating in this fun outdoor event should gather at the bottom of memorial steps across from Anderson Hall, 200 College Avenue. At noon, we’ll climb the steps and begin to tap the trees growing on the sloped lawn to the right of the steps behind Paige Hall and the Lincoln Filene Center.  Attendees are encouraged to dress appropriately to be outside for an hour.

The Somerville Maple Syrup Project is coordinated by Groundwork Somerville in partnership with the Friends of the Community Growing Center, Somerville Public Schools and Tufts University.  In late January, maple trees in Somerville are tapped and the collected sap is stored for a 2-day public boil-down event in March at the Community Growing Center.  Sap starts flowing when temperatures drop below freezing at night, and rise above freezing during the day.

In addition to daily sap collection, Groundwork Somerville staff and community volunteers teach a 4- week arts and science curriculum to 2nd graders in all of Somerville’s public schools and at the Somerville Public Library.  High school students working in the metal shop provide annual maintenance on the wood stove and evaporator pan they made in 2005.  The syrup produced is given as thank you gifts to key partners, and/or sold in small maple leaf jars at the Groundwork Somerville booth at the Union Square Farmer’s Market. To learn more about the project, visit and select the Somerville Maple Syrup Project page.

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Holidays can support our Community

There’s some fun events coming up, check ’em out, or suggest others in the comments section!

1) Do you like to draw, doodle, or design things?  Find details here, submissions due Nov. 21st: Maple T-shirt Design Contest  Feel free to pass along to graphicly-minded friends

2) Do you think you might like to eat a HOUSE MADE MAPLE BACON DOUGHNUT?  Or other delicious maple things? I’m running a Maple Syrup Brunch at the Independent on December 3rd to fundraise for the Maple Syrup Project, and would be deeply appreciative if you came and brought a table-full of friends!  Oh, and there’s also delicious Maple-themed cocktails.

3) Last but not least, does your house or apt. want a Wreath this winter?  Early bird rates end Dec. 1st, your purchase helps the Growing Center…that awesome place where we boil sap into syrup in March.

Children and Nature Get Involved!

Summer Kids Library Workshops: Check ’em out!

This summer, Groundwork Somerville “healthy Education” programming is expanding to all three Somerville Public Libraries!  In addition to our traditional nature and gardens programming in existing camps and summer programs, I will be leading late afternoon workshops at the libraries on Tuesdays and Thursdays this summer.  This summer’s GWS library programming is free open to the public, best for youth ages five to nine and includes a snack!

At the Main Branch, “Eco-Explorers” weekly Tuesday workshops from 4-5pm will enable young residents to explore nature and wildlife in their neighborhood.  The series at the East Branch, entitled “One world, many critters” will introduce us to insects, spiders, and worms through fun activities, snacks, and games. At the West Branch, we’ll continue our strand of themed workshops connecting to the library’s “One World, Many Stories” summer focus.

Groundwork Somerville would like to thank the Friends of the Somerville Public Library for their support of this programming.  All workshops are on our calendar – we hope you’ll spread the word, stop by and bring your friends!

2010 Library Workshop Participants Show off New Seedlings!
Get Involved! Home Gardens Personal Sustainability: How-To

Urban Composting

Moving to Boston provoked several urban lifestyle wake-up-calls, many of them relating to city residents’ relationship to food and waste.  Many of my comments drew quizzical looks.

In line at dining hall brunch:
Classmate: “Why don’t you want a bunch of these HUGE strawberries?!”
Me: “They’re not in season, it’s January.  I don’t know, I’d rather eat citrus because this is the time of year it’s really good.”
Classmate: “?!? Ok, more for me!”

At a department event with free food:
Me: “Where do we put the vegetables we’re not going to eat?”
Professor: “Uh, in the trash?”

After living here for almost six years, I now see why it is so hard to be aware of seasonality or waste reduction options when living in an urban community.  It takes much more effort and desire, and many people choose to focus their efforts elsewhere.  In the past several years I’ve happily noticed increased interest in compost, farmer’s markets, in-season local food, and back yard/porch gardening.  Things are really changing.
There certainly are legitimate reasons that composting, eating in-season local food, and urban gardening are challenging and even harmful to one’s heath.  Toxic soils, rats, and high initial costs can give such pursuits a bad name if done without some research and strategy.  This is why I am so excited to be able to offer “Urban Composting Workshops” – both in-person, as a representative of Groundwork Somerville at the Somerville Community Growing Center, and in webinar format as a Senior Fellow of the Environmental Leaders Program.

Join me in person or online to learn about how to deter pests and rodents, eliminate odors, and turn waste to compost as fast as possible.  These issues are common in urban settings and often give composting a bad name – don’t let this happen to you and your neighbors!!  Maintaining a healthy compost bin reduces waste (and smelly trash cans) and improves soil quality. Done right, you can inspire others to compost in their backyards. Even with limited space or no backyard, there are options for you too.  Join me!

Children and Nature School Gardens

Free Play

Does anyone have time, these days, for free play?  Adults, children, and everyone in between seem to be scheduled from the moment their alarm rings in the morning to the moment they finally get into bed for the night.  Educators and child care providers seem to think that parents prefer to have their children actively engaged in structured activities at all times.  Talking to parents, however, I’ve found them incredibly grateful for safe spaces for their kids to freely explore and play actively outdoors.  Maybe it’s the lack of such places in today’s neighborhoods that has eliminated free play in youth’s days.

We watch as a spider catches and wraps up an ant!

Within this context, I feel extremely lucky.  My job is to facilitate outdoor learning, exploration, and active play in the small natural spaces scattered (often hidden) in our intensely dense city.  Yes, our goals are to facilitate learning in the areas of biology, ecology, and nutrition.  Yes, I can prove that we meet multiple standards in every hour of programming.  If, however, we go outside to observe and learn about pollination but end up getting distracted by a spider catching a fly in its web, it’s no problem! What a great opportunity to learn about food chains, predators and prey, and our garden ecosystem.  It’s this kind of flexibility that is needed to truly take advantage of all of the learning experience that arise when spending free time in outdoor natural spaces.

Though exhausting, leading the “Spring into Action!” April Vacation Program re-invigorated my motivation to push for more outdoor and natural play options in the city.  During camp, free play could easily be integrated into our day because of our setting and daily structure.  We were at the Growing Center so unstructured time led to experiences like exploring around the pond, finding worms in the compost pile, watering flowers and freshly planted vegetable seeds, or climbing a tree.   Our answer to cold temperatures: integrate more running games into our day and enjoy a collectively-cooked hot meal for lunch.  Parents were excited and grateful to report that their children fell asleep early and ate all their dinners each night after camp.

Today at our “Dig Spring!” Garden Club, half of us were excited to plant the carrot and lettuce seeds I’d brought.  The other half just wanted to run back and forth across the grassy strip of land and run up and down the stairs to the school.  My immediate reaction was to stop the running and organize everyone in the planting efforts.  I quickly questioned myself.  Had we all learned how to plant seeds already?  Yes! Had all students participated in pea planting before vacation? Yes! Do student get to run around enough? No! Have these first and second graders been sitting all day listening to adults tell them things? Yes!  Our runners and seed planters co-existed in our garden space for 20 minutes, totally engaged in an activity of choice, with some drifting from running to planting and back again.  The added bonus: I became the hero for allowing the students to do what they preferred, everyone had a fun day, everyone was physically tired by the end of our hour, and when asked, everyone could name at least three of the types of vegetables we’d planted in the garden this spring.  We also learned a cool fact to tell our friends: by playing actively outside, we were actually helping the environment.  Our lights and TV weren’t using electricity and we were making ourselves healthier by staying active!