Students from Vermont Academy work to build raised bed gardens at the Saxtons River Elementary School during Earth Day on Monday. (Zachary P.
Students from Vermont Academy work to build raised bed gardens at the Saxtons River Elementary School during Earth Day on Monday. (Zachary P. Stephens/Brattleboro Reformer)
Tuesday April 23, 2013

SAXTONS RIVER -- Some students at Vermont Academy used Earth Day to get their green thumbs dirty.

Dozens of students involved with environmental classes at the prestigious boarding school rolled up their sleeves Monday as part of an Earth Day tradition of gardening and outdoor work.

The students, broken down into different groups, were tasked with jobs such as creating raised flower beds at Saxtons River Elementary School, raking outside Vermont Academy's Sturtevant House, caring for a section of Long Trail and gardening at Our Place Drop-In Center in Bellows Falls. Kathi Perkins, who is in charge of community service at VA, said students were able to pick which jobs they did.

"Cleaning out the chicken coop is probably not the most favored one," she said with a smile. "But kids really get into the chopping wood."

At least a dozen students participated in building six flower beds, as part of a community garden, on elementary school grounds.

Mark Ragonese, an artist from Bellows Falls, was brought in to help with the woodwork and he taught the students how to use long, thin branches to create an attractive gateway entrance to the community garden.

"Earth Day is a big deal for me," he said, adding that the students were "getting their hands onto nature."

The Earth Day celebration will help usher in "phase two" of the Saxtons River Elementary School's Community Garden.

Phase one of the garden was completed in November 2012. At that time, a group of students and adults representing both schools teamed up to build, fill and partially plant three large raised beds.

In this next stage, an additional three raised beds will be built, filled, and planted. Each of the beds will be cared for by students in kindergarten through fifth grade with the help and direction of their teachers and parents, VA students and community volunteers. The children will plant seeds and tend to these beds and learn how to grow their own food.

The Saxtons River Community Garden committee, a member of the Greater Falls Community Garden Collaborative, hopes this will be the start of a larger garden that creates a space to build community, connect people to a food source, and raise crops.

Mary Anderson, a 16-year-old sophomore, said she had a great time building the flower beds and was also looking forward to working on them with the Saxtons River Elementary students.

"It's really cool. It's really fun. It's interesting to be able to work with little kids, also, and try to get them involved with it," she said, looking at her classmates under a sunny sky. "I'm really excited to have all the little kids be involved with us because it brings the two schools that are so close together actually physically closer together."

Ragonese also appreciated how the project is intended to incorporate two schools.

"It's that connection between the school on the hill and the town's school," he said. "They have a really nice bunch connections and this is just a continuing way of connecting the private school and the public school."

Dennis Holman, 15, assisted with the gateway entrance and said he prefers working in the fresh air, as opposed to what he would be doing in a classroom setting.

"It's a lot better," the freshman said. "We get outdoors and it's pretty fun."

Evan Ray, a 14-year-old freshman, told the Reformer he had volunteered to do gardening and raking outside the Sturtevant House because he enjoys doing that sort of work at his home in Brookline.

Other projects included students working at the Saxtons River Montessori School, helping an elderly resident rake her yard and cleaning up near the Main Street Arts building.

Christine Arminger, who is VA's sustainability coordinator and teaches four classes at the school, said Earth Day is her favorite day on campus.

"It's kind of the one day that my students and I get to own," she said. "We get to come with the whole schedule for the whole day and we get to focus on building communities, being outside and doing projects that have some sort of emphasis on sustainability."

Maryann McArdle, director of communications, said the Earth Day event is part of "a two-day affair."

Activities scheduled for the afternoon included a barbecued meal, a volleyball game, a mountain bike ride and tie-dying with natural dyes. Perkins also said the students would learn how to contact their congressmen.

Sunday night included some other events, movie showings and a show by Brattleboro-based band Flabberghaster.

Domenic Poli can be reached at dpoli@reformer.com, or 802-254-2311, ext. 277. You can follow him on Twitter @dpoli_reformer.