• Maple Syrup Season

    Posted by Douglas Keto on 2/7/2024 9:00:00 AM
    We seem to have found ourselves in a bit of a sticky situation, one that has required us to tap into our already sapped reserves and boil it all down to a sweet resolution. Of course I am talking about maple syrup season! At the time of writing this we have already collected 167 gallons of sap and made over 2 gallons of sweet, robust syrup!
    By some strange confluence of events this year and last we found ourselves with sap that had around 3% sugar! More sugar means less boiling, which is certainly a relief when it takes about 4 hours to turn 5 gallons of sap into just 16 ounces of syrup!
    Our mild winter allowed us to tap much earlier than usual on February 2nd, but also nipped us in the bud at the end. Warm days and nights meant bacteria growing in our sap, and since we just can't boil fast enough that signaled the end of our season. Good news for the trees that can now start healing from the holes we drilled!
    We have already produced double the amount of syrup from last year so we have decided to hold a fundraiser where community members can support the Garden Program by buying our Mill Road Maple Syrup. More details to come, but for now our students can enjoy that very same syrup on some pancakes in class!
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  • Teamwork Makes the Stream Work!

    Posted by Douglas Keto on 1/30/2024 9:00:00 AM

    Continuing with our theme of ecology from our last lesson, it's time to get the full picture. Hibernation was a great introduction to the concepts of cycles and resource scarcity, but only highlighted the competition between animals. In this lesson we explore the ideas of competition and cooperation within an ecosystem and how both are used in the ultimate quest for survival.

    This game is a little bit different from the rest, it is one in which you cannot win, but certainly can lose. In a stream, or any ecosystem for that matter, the goal for each individual organism is survival, but individual survival is meaningless if the entire ecosystem collapses. It is thus advantageous for individuals to sometimes cooperate and sometimes compete for limited resources.

    By cooperating, organisms like trees, deer, and fish can share information, food, water, and offer protection. An individual has a better chance of survival if they have a safety net. When resources get scarce, however, it may be beneficial to look out for yourself, even at the cost of your fellow fish being eaten. Even if you lose one fish, the predator, say a hawk, keeps the fish population in check, ensuring a sustainable food source for itself and the fish.

    If there were not checks and balances in nature, then one organism might overwhelm the rest and disrupt the food chain/web. If fish overpopulate because there are no hawks to eat them, then the crawfish population is wiped out. With no food source, the fish ultimately die as well.

     Students are treated to this careful ecological dance in our game, whereby they are seperated into three animal groups: Crawfish, Trout, and Osprey. The goal of the game is not just to survive, but to keep the whole ecosystem running. Each student has 30 seconds each round to plan with their species and 30 seconds to speak with any other organism. During which time they must decide which rock (1-7) they will visit at the end of the round to hide or to hunt. Crawfish and Trout do not want to be eaten by their predators and Trout and Osprey want a tasty meal. If a predator picks the same rock as its prey there is a chance they are eaten, but they are not out of the game! Just like energy is exchanged between organisms, in the game the eaten prey becomes a member of their predator's species, modeling reproduction and populations change!

    Students will see as the rounds progress a shift in each species population, informing their decision to either cooperate to survive or compete to ensure the game continues. Alliances will be made and broken, lies and deceit will be rampant, and while there is no architect of the stream ecosystem, they will see it adapt and change in response to their individual and collective decisions!

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  • Hibrrrrrrrrnation

    Posted by Douglas Keto on 1/11/2024 3:00:00 PM

    It's not often that we get to talk about the things that we don't see, but that was exactly our focus this week. Every student got the chance to tell me what animals they have seen outside during winter. Answers ranged from birds and deer to squirrels and raccoons. Afterward we talked about what animals we haven't seen: mice, skunk, groundhogs, bats, and bear. Why? Where are they all hiding? Students were very quick to remind me about hibernation.

    What does hibernation mean? Is it just a long sleep? Wouldn't they get hungry, I know I would after 3 months! Firstly these animals fatten up all year so they don't need to feed every day and they also have the special ability to control their heart rate. We felt our pulses and counted how many times our hearts beat. Now that we had a resting number, what happens to your heart rate when you exercise and when you sleep? Why do you feel hungry after running, but you don't need to wake up in the middle of the night to eat? Turns out hibernators can slow their heart rate so they use less energy too!

    Now for the most important questions, the ones that will help them survive my game. How do animals know when to wake up from hibernation without a watch or alarm clock? Before long students caught on and informed me it was when the weather gets warmer and brighter during spring, of course! But what if you were a poor little mouse that woke up on a warm winter day thinking it was time, would you survive? Not if the predators, hunger, or cold had anything to say about it. Well, just sleep in then, no chance of freezing. Now you've just let everyone else get a head start on eating, leaving nothing for you!

    Students were now transformed into mice, poof! They all scurried beneath my makeshift nest, hidden from the outside world and ready to hibernate. I, the fox, informed them that winter would be only 30 seconds long and they had to count to themselves before coming out. If they peeked out too soon, hungry for one of the hidden apples, they would be chomped! If they came out too late, all of the apples would be snatched up by braver mice.

    We played this game with different length winters, sometimes 30 seconds, sometimes 40, sometimes 60! We also added and subtracted the amount of apples each round, leaving some mice hungry. Soon they began to realize that not every animal gets food, only those lucky or experienced enough to hibernate for the right length. And even mice who did wake up on time were beaten out by their companions! It was okay though, even if some mice didn't make it, they made a tasty meal for a fox or a hawk somewhere, so the cycle continues.

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  • Tea Time Tournament

    Posted by Douglas Keto on 1/8/2024 10:25:00 AM

    In the weeks leading up to winter break it felt only right to prepare ourselves for the onset of frigid weather. And there is no better tool for surviving the cold than an aromatic cup of steaming tea! Since it is garden class, we used herbal teas collected in our garden and gardens nearby to treat our students to a feast for the senses.

    It would have been boring to simply have a tea party, so instead, I devised a Tea Time Tournament that would allow each class the chance to make a brew unique to their class alone. 8 teas (lemongrass, lemon balm, citrus peel, mullein, white peony, marsh-mallow, blackberry, and passion flower) were pitted against one another in head-to-head blind smell tests. In each round they got only a second to sniff two mystery teas and decide on the spot which they liked better. The winners advanced to the semifinals, and when all was said and done we had the 4 winners from each heat. Each winner was added to the teapot and steeped to make a tea no other class got to try!


    While the tea brewed we continued the tournament to decide our ultimate favorite tea. The reward for our tired noses was a delightful herbal tea mix that we all enjoyed together. Of course we learned the special tea tasting technique so that we could fully enjoy the subtle-teas of our drink.

    If there was time at the end of the lesson, I laid one more challenge at their feet with a chance to win some take-home tea. The challenge was simple, after smelling all the teas and revealing which was which, I jumbled them around and saw if the class could correctly identify 3/5 of them. Very few noses were up to the task, but we had one lucky class take home the big prize!

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  • Compost Skeeball

    Posted by Douglas Keto on 12/11/2023 10:35:00 AM

    With the garden nicely tucked in for the winter we are having classes inside once again, but that won't stop us from becoming compost connoisseurs! As we cross the 600lb mark for food waste collected from the kitchen and cafeterias, I wanted to test our 3-5 students on how well they know their compost. 

    I started off by asking if classes could help refresh my foggy memory, "what is compost exactly?" It's something that I say all the time, but what does it mean? Students wasted no time in reminding me that compost was a mix of food scraps, paper, and garden "waste" that you feed to the worms. But are worms really doing all the work? Some classes already knew about the all important role of bacteria in breaking down compost, but they learned that these microbes also needed a balanced meal. Unlike humans, they only require Browns and Greens on their plate to be satisfied, so we reviewed what those delicious morsels were. Browns are the materials like paper, dead leaves, cardboard, hay, and grains that give bacteria the energy to keep on munching. And Greens, like fruits, veggies, manure, and eggshells gave them the power to multiply! This information would come in handy if they accepted my secret bonus game, but first we had to play the main game.

    Compost Skeeball requires teams to work together to sort items into their respective bins, compost or trash/recycling. But unlike real life, they couldn't just drop it in! Competitors had to pick a random stress ball from a bucket that was labeled with an item, anything from rhubarb to old socks. Their team helped them decide where it should go and with a skillful hand they had to bounce or roll it across the length of TWO tables (10ft) into the correct bucket!

    Teams scored 1 point if the item was in the correct bucket, -1 point if the item was in the wrong bucket, and 0 points if it was left on the table or fell to the floor. There were also fake apples in the buckets, and since they had an irregular shape, they were worth 3 points if they landed in the compost and -3 points if they ended up in the trash.

    After each round, we counted which items ended up in the right buckets and added all the teams' points together to get a class score. After 2 rounds, the class was given a choice, either go for a 3rd round or opt into my secret bonus game. I wouldn't reveal what the bonus game was unless the class voted to play it, but we have already gone over the answers to beat it. If they succeeded in the bonus game, their score was DOUBLED. If they failed, I cut their score in HALF.

    Some brave classes decided to play the bonus, gambling their scores in order to take the lead for their grade level. The game was simple; making a balanced meal for the bacteria in the compost. I gave each team 30 seconds to rifle through all the items and put one into either the Browns or Greens bucket. At the end when all the votes had been cast, I placed each bucket on the side of my giant scale. If it balanced, they succeeded. However, if the buckets were off slightly, they tumbled to the ground and the challenge was failed. All but 1 class who attempted the bonus succeeded, proving their supreme mastery of compost sorting!

    3rd Grade Scores:

    1. Annunziata - 45
    2. Burud - 43
    3. O'Shea/Milles - 40
    4. Wilson - 37
    5. Houston - 34

    4th Grade Scores:

    1. Clark - 106
    2. Hart - 57
    3. Bell - 55
    4. Levine - 46
    5. Jones - 18

    Best of luck to all our competitors in next year's annual compost competition!


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  • Bug Bunkers for Winter Weather

    Posted by Douglas Keto on 12/1/2023 3:25:00 AM

    In preparation for winter we have decided to set up several luxury vacation spots for the little critters that live in our garden. They have been working hard all year to pollinate and eat pests, so they have earned some rest!

    Our first location is located in the southeast corner of our garden, being mostly shady and cool. This Brush Bungalo is perfect for the laid back bug looking to stay close to family and down to earth!

    brush pile

    Next up is an eclectic mix of standing grasses, brush, flowers, and shrubs. Perfect for those looking for variety in their winter months, hopping between rooms as unique as they are!standing brush

    If brush is beneath you, consider our Leaf Mulch Mansion! The most spacious of all our options, this package includes a mix of shredded leaves and cut grass that keep the vast space heated as it decomposes. Don't miss out on this limited time offer, spaces fills up as soon as the snow comes!

    leaf pile

    And last, but certainly not least we have the highest end Woodland Estates. Here you will be treated to a multistory complex whose rooms are made of pine, oak, and maple! You'll find endless fun in the nooks and crevices, guaranteed to attract the most discerning insects!wood pile

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  • Microbes, Your-crobes, and Our-crobes

    Posted by Douglas Keto on 11/30/2023 11:35:00 AM

    There are two places that have yet to be touched by the cold, the compost pile and our classrooms, both of which are heating up! In this week's lesson we are skipping a few grades to learn the unique biology and ecology within our compost pile!

    We need experts as we re-launch the composting program in the K-2 cafeteria. So, with the help of my handy dandy stress balls (each labeled with a different item) and giant scale, we endeavor to sort compost from trash and fact from fiction.

    First we talked about what compost even is and what can and can't go in it. I was shocked and delighted at how many students had a pretty firm grasp on the fundamentals (they must have been paying attention in garden class)! So we delved deeper, who is munching on your paper shreds and banana peels to turn them into a nice finished compost? Worms, ants, and beetles were the most common answer, but then we introduced the true heroes of compost, microbes!

    MICRObes are so small that you need a MICROscope to see them, and just like all living things, they need air, water, and food to survive. And just like we need a balanced meal, so too do microbes need a nice balance of energy-rich browns and strength building greens. We talked about what things counted as greens and browns and then, without further ado started the game.

    Students were challenged to draw a random labeled ball from the bucket and read it aloud to their team, using their collective knowledge to decide whether it is trash or compost. Either way, it had to be bounced into the correct bin on top of their table, a feat that saw balls bouncing to every corner of the classroom! Before long we had buckets brimming with compost, but that wasn't the end. Now they had to recall our discussion earlier for the final test.

    In front of them sat two buckets, one labeled "greens" the other "browns." The task was simple, grab items from their compost buckets and now sort them to give our microbes a healthy balanced meal. No help from me this time, each student had to draw on their own knowledge to make the best choice. Finally, when all the votes were cast, it was time to see whether the scales balanced. Buckets were placed on either side of my scale, some sat perfectly in the middle, others toppled to one side. But after examining the contents of each and putting them in their correct category, the scales always balanced!

    Now that we have experts in each class, we can forge ahead into Mill Roads next chapter. It is our goal to save all possible food waste from our kitchen and cafeterias to compost here on site. The kitchen and 3-5 side are already accounted for, the K-2 cafeteria is the last piece of the puzzle. If you are interested in volunteering an hour of your time, please contact me at dketo@rhcsd.org to sign up!


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  • Giving Thanks the Garden Way

    Posted by Douglas Keto on 11/27/2023 3:55:00 PM

    It's good to be back from Thanksgiving break! I wanted to take this opportunity to reflect on what allows the garden program to do good work and do it well. First and foremost, our program does not exist without the enthusiastic and continuous support of the school, community, and our students. Mill Road was a pioneer in garden education all the way back to 2010 when they first broke ground for the garden with the help of Tricia Paffendorf and Lydia Cordier. This was the first step in a decade-long endeavor to integrate environmental education into student life and learning. I would not have the pleasure of writing this now if it were not for those individuals willing to try something radical.

    Throughout the years, there have been some truly passionate and dedicated individuals in the position of Garden Educator here at Mill Road. I would be remiss if I did not recognize the enormity of their contributions. It was their vision and determination that laid the foundation for what we are accomplishing now. Make no mistake, it was not the monumental effort of one person, but rather the gradual effort of many that allow the program and myself to thrive.

    To the administration, faculty, staff, aides, cafeteria workers, custodial staff, and all school-related professionals (I am sorry if I missed anyone), you endeavor each and every day to improve the lives of our communities' children. You make something so incredibly difficult look easy, often without credit, recognition, or thanks. The Garden Program does not exist without you. I repeat, the Garden Program does not exist without you! I do my best to show my appreciation for your efforts, but all the free garlic in the world cannot express my gratitude for your tireless work.

    Finally, I must acknowledge the students, parents, and the greater Red Hook community that supports the garden in every meaning of the word. Your vocal recognition of our efforts pushes us forward, and your generous donations are what allow us to purchase the necessary supplies to provide high quality programming for our students. I am not technologically savvy. In fact, this is the only online presence we have to communicate with you, but I truly cherish all the feedback you can provide us. Whether it be in person or online, we need to hear from the students and their families about what we are doing well and what we can improve. Any and all suggestions are welcome because we collectively benefit from building a stronger, more interconnected program.

    All of this being said, we have spent this year laying the groundwork for a more sustainable Garden Program, one that can weather whatever the future may hold. We have made a push to plant more low maintenance perennials, native meadows, fruiting trees and shrubs, and securing sustainable funding. We are connecting with local institutions to form seed banks, internship opportunities, family volunteers, composting & recycling initiatives, and providing educational resources beyond the school's grounds.

    We are a community, and I do not use that word lightly. Of everywhere that I have ever lived and worked, Red Hook is the most vibrant, empathetic, and dynamic community I have ever been a part of. It is my sincere delight and honor to be in a position that doesn't feel like work at all, and witness the extraordinary growth of everyone who passes through our garden gates!

    Even though it's not even maple syrup season, I still got sappy! There is plenty of work still to be done both inside and out, so stay tuned!

    Daily Catch Article on the Garden

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  • Garlic & Bulb Update

    Posted by Douglas Keto on 11/13/2023 11:10:00 AM

    The frost has settled in and made itself comfortable in the garden, luckily we were one step ahead. With the help of our K-2 students, we planted over 240 cloves of garlic! We have also scattered tulip, ranunculus, hyacinth, daffodil, and allium bulbs throughout the garden to spruce up our spring color.

    Now that soil temperatures are consistently below 45°F, we are starting to broadcast (spread) our native wildflower and grass seed on the meadow-in-progress. We've also included a nurse crop of common oat, that will outcompete annual weeds and shelter our wildflowers as they establish over the next 3 years!

    Special thanks to our first round of parent volunteers that are helping out in the K-2 cafeteria to collect compost. With their help, we now divert food waste from the entire school, a major step towards becoming a more sustainable institution! If you are interested in signing up for an hour shift, email me your availability at dketo@rhcsd.org with what days and times work for you (between 10:30am - 1:30pm).

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  • Compost Stew and Garlic Too!

    Posted by Douglas Keto on 11/3/2023 3:30:00 PM

    What started as a drab and dreary week blossomed into warmth (relatively) and sunshine! To make the most of our fickle fall weather we had two seperate lessons, one inside and one outside.

    Inside we read one of my favorite books, Compost Stew by Mary McKenna Siddals, only for Halloween I changed the name to Witches' Stew. But we didn't just read about making delicious stew, we had ourselves a little cooking competition. Once primed on all the fantastic ingredients that can comprise a compost concoction, we set to work making our own unique stew. Working in groups, students chose from a variety of ingredients, both greens (rich in nitrogen) and browns (full of carbon). They shredded them up and mixed them thoroughly, just like the recipe calls for. And finally, adding the perfect amount of water to produce a mouth-watering (for microbes) compost! As a compost connoisseur myself, I took it upon myself to judge whether the student stews would be fit for our worms, and they all passed the test! Then each student got to feed the worms in my vermicompost bin with their creations.

    Those classes brave enough to go outside were treated with a boatload (or should I say bucket load) of work and fun. It was their task to fill their 5 gallon buckets to the brim with leaves and bring them to the garden so we could tuck our beds in for winter. The only problem was the leaf pile was on the complete other side! This meant students had to race over a hundred meters to get from one end to the other, trying to see how many leaves they could ferry. At the end we had made a huge dent in the leaf pile and got a hard-earned prize; planting garlic!

    So far we've planted 110 cloves of garlic, and we haven't even done half yet!

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Last Modified on February 28, 2024