School gardens sprout in Cayman

As more and more food comes to the Islands in packaged and processed form, a small ground swell has started that focuses on sustainable farming or gardening and fresh produce.

While restaurants like The Brasserie have dedicated an entire meal based around the farm-to-table concept with their monthly Harvest Dinner, schools now have the chance to learn about sustainable agriculture with schoolyard gardens.

Project Grow aims to connect food with its origin by educating students about healthy foods and nutrition.

The programme can help children learn the principles of gardening. And the hands-on experience can help familiarize children with the many relationships and cycles within nature providing a link to healthy eating and nutritional choices.

The gardening experience itself brings other health benefits like time spent outdoors in the fresh air and a sense of well being. It also offers ways to address nutrition.

Maureen Cubbon, marketing and health & wellness manager for Generali Worldwide, has spearheaded this project along with HSBC Bank (Cayman) and Vigoro Nursery.

“We (Generali) have a programme that we do in the schools called Be Active and Eat Smart. That’s been around for about seven years now,” Cubbon said. “So we thought it would be nice to do something supplemental to that, but really focusing around nutrition. But we wanted something not as traditional as things have been done historically.”

She has been involved in school gardens before in Canada, which helped in the formation of the Cayman Project Grow.

“We want to be able to allow all the schools in Cayman to go ahead and say, ‘we really think this is great and we would like to apply to have the project at our school,’” she said. “We wanted to make sure that all the schools that were able to do it, and willing to do it and certainly have staff and teachers that are dedicated to doing it and sustaining it through the years, will get the programme in their schools.”

She has made the application process easy for schools and staff.

“It’s just one application form and it’s very simple. It has basic information – the school, who’s there, why do they want it, and contact information on whether or not they have space to do a garden or a grow box. And who’s going to help us assess that is supporting sponsor Vigoro Nursery.”

Tom Balon from Vigoro Nursery says this project is unique and interesting, very in depth and any school can apply.

Balon will meet with the teacher or staff in charge of the garden to evaluate the needs and desires of the school.

“The focus is on the edibles – sugar cane, mango trees, etc. I put together the cost of what it would be to build the garden with labour and materials all provided by Vigoro,” he said. “Then it’s up to the teachers to introduce that curriculum with their classes. And they’ll be free to call me any time they want for help.”

When the project is up and running, the students and staff will be able to plant seasonal vegetables.

“It will be a lot of time and a lot of work, but there will be something to show for it,” he said.

Balon says that these school gardens will raise awareness of growing and the planting industry, while focusing on the health benefits of eating fresh foods. And the students will get plenty of exercise while working in the garden.

“It can be a very rewarding career. I hope these gardens will initiate interest in the entire industry,” he said.

Ralph Manoosingh is a teacher that runs the garden operation at Clifton Hunter. Several of the students in Manoosingh’s gifted class work in the garden.

Their latest experiment was focusing on the growth of beans around the invasive species of Australian pines called casuarinas.

“We came to the conclusion in the final experiment that if the pine needles fall and seeds from other seeds fall, they will never reach the soil because they will stay at the top of the pine needles,” he said.

The pine needle seeds have many tiny seeds that are released from a double-pronged larger pine seed that works their way through the other pine needles to reach the soil.

The small group has grown garlic, beans, rice and scotch bonnet peppers and they also experiment in other ways.

“We went outside where we do planting and we did something called layering,” he said.

It’s a process used on the silver buttonwood tree where you peel a small portion of the branch off, you wrap it in soil, and the plant grows roots. Essentially, a branch that is layered can be grown as its own plant.

All of the gifted students are very excited about the gardens.

“You need to do a lot of research to avoid the plants getting diseases,” said one of the students. “The experimenting is fun,” said another.

The group receives support from the principal and deputy principal, but Manoosingh needs more money and support from the new school to continue the garden.

And he’s constantly battling vegetable thieves – as soon as the group plants something and it blossoms, someone with sticky fingers cuts through the fence and takes the small harvest.

Manoosingh has invested his own money, currently funding a small hydroponic box that will teach the kids how to grow plants without soil. But he doesn’t have much confidence in it staying around too long.

“The other is it probably won’t survive because they’re going to come in here and pull it off,” he said.

And this is one of the many reasons Generali, HSBC and Vigoro Nursery started their new programme – Project Grow can help out Manoosingh’s group.

Project Grow is now making an open call to all schools in the Cayman Islands. They are accepting applications for the September 2011 school year.

Interested schools must have an open area to hold a grow box or a patch of land, and dedicated faculty and students to develop and maintain the garden throughout the 2011-12 school year.

Schools will be chosen based on their willingness and ability to support the programme for the long-term.