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:

Get Involved!

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.
Get Involved!

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!

Get Involved!

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!

Celebrating an Urban Summer, Outside

Who would have predicted I’d still be living in Somerville, the most densely populated city in New England, six years after coming here for school?  The small natural spaces in our city made it possible.  Coordinating the programming in and maintenance of our eight school gardens has been an incredible learning experience for me.  I can hardly believe that my job is to encourage play, exploration, and learning in these small urban ecosystems.  However, there is one additional space that provides Somerville with an especially special natural oasis: The Somerville Community Growing Center.

The Growing Center is a city park, but it’s nothing like any other.  Built as a result of a community-driven design process with volunteer labor and donated materials, it has matured into a vibrant ecosystem.  Within its mere 1/4 acre, there’s a pond, trees to climb, a performing stage, fruit trees, wild flowers, a bee hive, solar panels, community compost bins, vegetable gardens, a grassy lawn and labyrinth, and numerous pieces of art.  Some see it as a place to play, some a cultural center, some a medatative safe space, some an outdoor performance area, some a place to learn to grow food, and still others that place where maple syrup is made in the city each spring.

One of my favorite events of the summer was the first ever “Growing Villen Voices Open Mic.”  Youth from Teen Empowerment and Groundwork Somerville joined together to organize the event which featured youth-cooked free food (with lots of yummy produce) and a talented line-up of youth poets, singers, performers, and activists.  The event drew a diverse crowd of youth, mentors, and fans – many of whom hadn’t ever been to the Growing Center before.  The outdoor venue certainly wasn’t the focus of the event, but it did influence its vibe.  Bird songs accompanied stand up poetry.  Wind interrupted the line-up by lifting a tent into the air.  The dusk signaled the end of the event.  We appreciated the sunny dry day.  Natural rhythms like these are rarely factors in our daily urban lives because we spend so little time outside.

The most important part of the Growing Center for me is the sense of wonder, exploration, and spontaneous learning it prompts in visitors of all ages.  Being in natural spaces seems to encourage these responses.  Those of us living in paved, built, urban spaces, however, rarely get to have these experiences especially if we lack the means to travel outside of the city.  For me, the Somerville Community Growing Center is one of Somerville’s gems – setting our city apart from other dense urban communities and making it a great place for all residents to live, work, and play.

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!

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Urban Maple Syrup

By the end of January, I begin to think jealously of other “Gardens Coordinators” or Farm Managers who are recharging in their season of rest.  Despite my title, my job is ramping up in preparation for the Somerville Maple Syrup Project.  January through March becomes almost as hectic and challenging as mid summer in the middle of a drought!  Educators must be trained and materials must be prepared so teams of these volunteers can enrich second grade classrooms across the city with multidisciplinary weekly activities.  Sap collecting buckets, spiles, and tools must be gathered and cleaned.  A sap collection schedule, also dependent on a handful of weekly volunteers, must be arranged and clear sap collection instructions must be documented.  And of course, the many partnerships – with Tufts, Somerville Food Services, back-yard tree owners, the Growing Center, teachers, principals, and companies donating to the project – must be re-kindled and confirmed.  Sometimes it feels like a big headache.

BUT, the work pays off.  The Somerville Maple Syrup Project is remarkable in its ability to reach so many different communities and groups across the city while producing a sweet and delicious local food.  We train and rely on over twenty amazing volunteers who commit weekly and together energize and power the project.  Volunteers range from undergraduate students to stay-at-home moms and from Groundwork Somerville interns to previous maple program coordinators.  High School Technology Education students help clean and maintain the boiler that they made in 2006.  Second graders at every elementary school in the Somerville Public School system get to meet cool new guest teachers and learn about their urban environment in a fun and unique way.  Passers by the intersection of Boston Ave. and College Ave. might peer curiously at the buckets hanging from trees on the sloping hill above them.  Upon closer inspection, they might learn about the project by reading the signs attached to each bucket.  Families whose children are not in participating classrooms can go to the library each Saturday at 11am in February to participate in a series of maple-y workshops.

All this energy comes together at the maple syrup Boil Down Festival, which is happening this year on the weekend of March 5th at the Somerville Community Growing Center.  Folks from across greater Boston come to this fun festival perfect for families, local foodies, tree-lovers, musicians, neighbors sick of being cooped up inside, and lovers of maple syrup.  Now who doesn’t belong in at least one of those categories?  In the densely settled city of Somerville, you can join the crowd to see local sap boiling away, turning into maple syrup as steam floats away into the March air.  Smells of waffles and syrup waft into your nose and syrupy songs energize the crowd.  If this sounds like a good time, join us as we embark on the 11th year of the Somerville Maple Syrup Project!