In the Garden That Grows

by Amiee White Beazley

There is no doubt, one of the most beautiful times of the year at Colorado Rocky Mountain School is fall. The brush on the hills around campus turn shades of burnt orange and ruby red, while the aspen leaves quake with a yellow so rich, one can only think of the sun. Students have settled into the routine of school, sports and homework as the earth begins to settle into its long quiet nap of winter.

But not too far from the Bar Fork, there is a hive of activity, and settling down is the furthest thing from the mind. Fall also means harvest season for the CRMS Organic Learning Garden. Here hundreds varieties of fruits, vegetables and herbs which have been nurtured since spring by Heather McDermott, Director of the Garden Program, two garden assistants, and a work crew of 13 CRMS students, are being moved from the earth to the plates of the CRMS community.

Planted over two acres are fruit orchards bearing pear, apple, apricot and plum, rows upon rows of vegetable perennials, and storage crops like onion cabbage, squash. There is also a greenhouse fitted with solar panels to help grow and cure throughout the year.

The garden program began 20 years ago by Linda Halloran and has grown into something renowned among independent schools as one of the finest examples of farm-to-dining hall in the country. Today, the organic garden is able to provide approximately 40 percent of all the food served at the Bar Fork each fall feeding 176 kids, plus faculty and staff, breakfast, lunch and dinner, totaling almost 600 meals a day.

“Parents love the idea of our staff serving fresh food from the garden,” says Fiona O’Donnell, Director of Food Services at CRMS. “With our garden we are able to get away from corporate catering groups.”

Every day in the dining hall, the “What’s in Season” whiteboard is updated with items students are eating fresh that day. It’s a dance of need, planning, growing and hard work – where the partnership between McDermott and O’Donnell is key.

“Fiona comes into garden and can tell me right away what will be enough,” says McDermott. “She tells me if I’ve grown too little or too much of something, or what she’d like to experiment with next year. It’s a learning curve every season.”

“I grow myself so I am familiar, but it’s an eye opener as a grower cooking for kids,” she says. “You have to know your market and my market is teenage kids. Some are used to eating a lot of vegetables, some are extremely adventurous, and some are not. We also have a large international student population, so bringing in locally sourced meats – beef, pork and lamb – some raised here on our property, is also a large component.”

While McDermott works year round on the garden, her student work crew spends four afternoons a week during fall in the garden. Students are not only learning sustainable agriculture, but math, art, biology and environmental studies while there. “This is a teaching garden and there is a teaching moment every second,” says McDermott. “Every time a student pulls a potato from the ground, they realize what it took to get there and how hard it is to produce food.”

Harvest season at CRMS is celebrated annually at the CRMS Harvest Dinner. Open to families, this vegetarian meal highlights students who started the seeds and worked the garden as well as the bounty itself. Served family style, this year’s colorful menu included a delicious beet hummus, a savory root vegetable bake and a spectacular chocolate zucchini cake served with raspberry coulis made from fruit picked and frozen during the summer, even freshly pressed Concord grape juice.

“These dinners show the full circle of things,” says McDermott. “This garden teaches our kids about commitment, sustainability, and the politics of producing food across the world. Our kids learn to appreciate how food is grown and how when it’s the freshest, it’s the best tasting and it’s also the best for you. We are growing organic food, but really we are growing a bigger awareness. It trickles down into our families and completes the ethos of CRMS.”

Click here to learn more about Colorado Rocky Mountain School.

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