Meet the Central Reform Congregation Community Garden


Growing Community at Central Reform Congregation Community Garden, and Beyond

Welcome to Central Reform Congregation Community Garden

One of the fundamental goals of the Central Reform Congregation (CRC) is to strengthen the bonds of our community through communication and participation, while continuing our work of Tikkun Olam — the repair of the world. Our landscape includes an area we call “Common Ground,” located at the northeast corner of the property, a circular area of paving stones intended to welcome members of the surrounding community, in this diverse urban setting. In this garden space, we have placed a public sculpture as a landmark where the community is welcome to gather for marches, candlelight vigils, or prayer services.

We have added 4 raised beds this spring to grow food and donate it to the local food pantry. We are building community with the gardens in the area, including the garden at Next Door and the Central West End farm, with the desire to build a thriving network. One day, we would love for the folks who use the food pantry to take over the gardening and maybe open a garden store for them to sell food and goods.

-Ben Fox, Garden Leader


Learning in the Central Reform Congregation Community Garden

I moved to St. Louis from Jackson, Mississippi hoping the weather would be cooler and less humid. I was wrong. And now, instead of working in an air conditioned office, my daily work life has changed dramatically. I moved to St. Louis at the end of July to work for The Amir Project, an organization that teaches young adults to run educational gardens at summer camps. In St. Louis though, Amir began a year-round initiative aiming to work with local community gardens in the hopes of providing support. More specifically, I work with the Garden of Eden at the JCC in Creve Coeur, the Central West End Farm, the Central Reform Congregation Community Garden, the Next Door garden, and the Transgender Memorial Garden.

Through each garden, I’ve met people and made friends who have each taught me something unique, which made me realize how truly innovative the garden classroom is. At the Central West End Farm, under the tutelage of Arthur Culbert, I not only learned interesting things about plants and veggies, but also how to sustain a gift-garden. I learned to infuse vinegar with herbs, package the product, and sell it to community members, which ultimately brings money back to the garden for seed and seedling money. I know these are skills I will take with me moving forward. I am grateful that even though air conditioning is comfortable, that I got out of the office setting and into the garden setting. Gardening in St. Louis very quickly introduced me to the folks of the city, and I was able to meet and befriend people of all ages.

-Arielle Nissenblatt

Celebrate National Farm to School Month in October

kidsOctober is National Farm to School Month, a time to celebrate connections happening all over the country between schools and local food!

Farm to school enriches the connection communities have with fresh, healthy food and local food producers by changing food purchasing and education practices at schools and early care and education settings. Students gain access to healthy, local foods as well as educational opportunities such as school gardens, cooking lessons, and farm field trips.

Over the past decade, the farm to school movement has exploded across the United States, reaching millions of students in all 50 states and Washington, D.C. Farm to school is an important tool in the fight against childhood obesity and food insecurity. In addition to improving child health, when schools buy local, they create new markets for local and regional farmers and contribute to vibrant communities, a win-win-win scenario!

Farm to School – Across the Nation

In March, the USDA released the results of its 2015 Farm to School Census, and the results are exciting!

  • In 2015 approximately 42,587 schools across the United States actively participated in Farm to School programs, reaching 23.6 million students nationwide.
  • During the 2013-2014 school year, participating schools purchased $789 million worth of local products from food producers – farmers, ranchers, and even fishermen!
  • 54% of the 5,254 school districts surveyed reported having at least one edible school garden. (In the 2013-14 school year, they reported 7,101 active school gardens providing fresh food and education opportunities!)


Farm to School – What’s happening in Missouri?

  • According to the 2015 Missouri Farm to School Survey, at least 911 schools (143 school districts or private schools) used locally grown food in school meals or snacks during the 2014-2015 school year, with the average school district spending 3% of their budget on local products.
  • In the 2009-10 school year, the most popular locally grown items purchased in Missouri Farm to School programs were apples, melons, cucumbers, tomatoes and peppers.
  • The Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 authorized and provided funding to the USDA to establish a Farm to School Program to provide grants and technical assistance in implementing farm to school programs to improve access to local foods in eligible schools.
  • In 2016 the School District of Springfield R-12  was awarded just over $90,000 to increase student access to locally sourced produce and expand food and nutrition education by the USDA.


Farm to School – What’s happening in STL?

  • In 2016, the Ferguson-Florissant School District was awarded $91,500 to partner with St. Louis University and local farms to integrate and expand its farm to school program.
  • Gateway Greening currently supports 65 school gardens across 19 school districts in St. Louis. 25 of those school gardens are at St. Louis Public Schools! Over 600 teachers across the region use these gardens as outdoor laboratories, serving 12,000 students.
  • Gateway Greening youth educators are working with 300 students each week in their school gardens as part of the Seed to STEM program. These students will be out having a Farm to School Harvest Party in October!
  • Fifteen youth participated in Gateway Greening’s teen employment program, Dig It STL, on the Gateway Greening Urban Farm this summer. 45 additional youth participated in other Youth Conservation Corps programs at YCC member organizations, including EarthDance and Seeds of Hope Farms. These students learned about soil, plant science, nutrition and teamwork while fully engaging in the work of the farm from planting to harvest to selling at North City Farmers’ Market… and weeding, lots and lots of weeding.


The 2016 National Farm to School Month theme, One Small Step, will highlight the simple ways anyone can get informed, get involved and take action to advance farm to school in their own communities and across the country. Join the celebrations by signing the One Small Step pledge and take one small step to support healthy kids, thriving farmers and vibrant communities this October.

Whether you are a food service professional, a farmer, a teacher or a food-loving family, there are plenty of ways to celebrate and get involved in National Farm to School Month! The National Farm to School Network offers a variety of free resources on its website,, including posters, stickers and a communications toolkit.

Learn more about National Farm to School Month, how you can get involved, and sign the pledge by visiting

Summer Maintenance in the School Garden

It’s a tough reality that the most active growing period in the garden coincides with summer break – when teachers and students are gone. It can be challenging to keep crops thriving without a dedicated caretaker to weed and water through the hottest days of summer. So how do successful school garden programs keep their crops growing and their gardens beautiful throughout the summer? As the summer of 2016 winds down, the Gateway Greening Educators take a look at some of the most successful school garden strategies they saw this year.

Start with a Plan

Garden Leaders and Educators can set their school garden up for success by planning ahead in spring. Start by considering your garden’s community: who are the key supporters? Volunteers? What community resources could your garden connect with for assistance?

august-8-2016-2Leveraging Community

Second grade teacher Angela Vaughn of Shaw VPA Elementary knows that no school garden is maintenance free during the summer months. Her solution was tap into the school garden’s existing community to create a ‘duty-roster’ for summer. Before school let out for the long break, Vaughn partnered with Gateway Greening Educator Punita Patel to ask students and their families to adopt the garden for one week during the summer. In this way, families could take turns weeding, watering and harvesting. It’s a great system that allows students to see how their plants are doing while sharing their enthusiasm and new-found knowledge with their families

The garden also drew in volunteers from the surrounding neighborhood who stopped in to weed, water, and even to visit with their neighbors. Since every summer helper is encouraged to take home any of the produce they harvest, very little goes to waste – even when school’s out for summer!

Tips for creating a summer maintenance schedule:

1. Before school lets out for break, ask students and their families to adopt the garden for as little as a day or as much as a week, with the reward of taking anything they harvest home! Use sign-up sheets to hold everyone accountable.

2. Ask fellow teachers to get involved! It never hurts to have an extra pair of eyes checking for droopy plants in need of water!

3. Reach out to the surrounding community. Often, neighbors are one of a school garden’s most valuable long-term volunteers!


The Sweet Potato Challenge

Beyond the schedule, Shaw VPA also makes the most of the summer growing season by participating in the Sweet Potato Challenge. This yearly competition starts in May, when teachers take their students outside to plant their slips (sweet potato starts) in the garden. Over the summer the sweet potato plants grow quickly, sprouting attractive green vines that shade the soil, reducing evaporation and keeping the soil moist longer. At the same time, the vines help to suppress weeds, helping to keep summer garden maintenance low.  

One of the great things about this challenge is that the sweet potatoes are ready to harvest in October, meaning the kids get to watch the last few months of their growth and to see, touch and taste the results of their work from the previous spring. The competition ends as students harvest and weigh their crops, competing against other schools to win the coveted first place in one of three categories: Largest Harvest (lbs), Weirdest Potato Shape, and Largest Potato!

Want to learn more about the Sweet Potato Challenge? Check out Shaw VPA teacher Angela Vaughn’s story of her students participating in the Sweet Potato Challenge last year here.

photo-credit-chris-althen-3Host Garden Parties

This past summer the PTO at Mallinckrodt Academy for Gifted Instruction (MAGI) put a new spin on garden parties by inviting students, their families, and even the surrounding neighbors to spend Tuesday evenings with them in the school garden!

Each garden party was almost like a small festival, with kids excitedly monitoring how their plants were doing, small food demonstrations from fellow gardeners and an ever changing variety of activities! A few of our staff favorites were:

  • Potluck dinners that resulted in recipe swaps between families
  • Local vendors selling cupcakes and pizza by the slice
  • Food Truck!
  • Yoga class for all ages
  • Music & Dancing – One night, there was even a live band!
  • Sprinklers for the kids to play in (that watered the garden at the same time!)

The garden parties at MAGI turned out to be a great way to keep families engaged not only at the school, but also in the garden. Each week students were encouraged to spend some time weeding and harvesting their crops. They then turned around and sold the food to their families and neighbors. Parents had fun helping the kids to set reasonable prices on each crop by sharing what they would expect to pay for the same thing at their local grocery stores, and the proceeds went on to the PTO to help fund future events and activities. By the end of June, the MAGI school garden was well cared for, well known, and had more community buy-in than it had at the end of the school year!


Tips for Hosting a School Garden Party:

  • Start simple – a sprinkler and a potluck meal can be a blast for people of all ages!
  • Help the kids set up a market stall – not only does it encourage garden maintenance, but it’s a great way to keep kids learning simple money handling and business skills while providing healthy food to the local community.
  • Look to your community – is there a parent who could lead an activity one night? Is there a local restaurant or bakery that would be willing to donate food or treats?


Connect with Local Volunteers

Increasing educational opportunities for kids is a cause everyone can get behind – and that includes in the school garden! Clay Elementary School’s Cougar Garden in Hyde Park Neighborhood demonstrated the power of connecting with community in several ways this summer.

Encourage Neighborhood Involvement

Since starting the Seed to STEM program at Clay in 2013, summer maintenance has always been a challenge. This year three individuals from the surrounding neighborhood offered to help keep up with garden tasks while the students were away on break, and the garden leaders were open to it. These 3 volunteers were a major asset to the garden and did a fantastic job caring for the garden despite several challenges including tool theft.,By being open to listening and discussing the youth garden’s needs when neighbors ask about volunteering, school gardens can develop a strong network of locally based volunteers.

Connect with Organizations

Clay’s Cougar Garden also benefits from fostering relationships with local organizations, like Link STL.

In response to Hyde Park Neighborhood’s unique community challenges, 2015 saw the founding of Link STL – a grassroots, community organizing entity that specializes in connecting people to opportunities.

This connection led to several great partnerships in 2016, starting with a local kids summer camp that came to explore and help in the garden once a week throughout the month of June. In this case, the summer camp gained a safe space for the campers to play and learn outside. The garden in turn saw active use during a time when it’s normally under-utilized, and also received a bit of help with weeding and watering. The campers even creatively re-painted the street planters with fun designs!

The connection with Link STL also led to a large work day in the Cougar Garden when volunteers from Rise STL and BAMSL Young Lawyers Division pitched in to help prepare the garden for the beginning of school. The work day came about when Rise STL and BAMSL approached Link STL about the possibility of founding a garden in Hyde Park, and were surprised to discover there was an existing garden that could use their help. Large groups of volunteers from both organizations spent a day weeding, mulching and watering the vegetable beds, the pollinator garden, and even helped to re-lay a mulch pathway into the orchard.

By connecting with both neighbors and local organizations, Clay Elementary School’s Cougar Garden was able to take advantage of many volunteer and educational opportunities that it may not have had access to otherwise. Taking the time to explore who is in your neighborhood and develop partnerships can be time and energy well spent in the long run.

The Takeaway

Any school garden can successfully create a summer maintenance program that keeps the garden active and attractive even over the longest school break. Try implementing one or more of the techniques that kept Shaw VPA, Mallinckrodt, and Clay school gardens growing!

  • Plan Ahead – Use Spring to identify key volunteers, supporters, and activities for the summer
  • Connect:  Extend beyond the school by connecting with neighbors, neighborhood organizations and local businesses to find and cultivate volunteer assistance
  • Get Active: Participate in an challenge, host an event, create a pop-up farm stand, or invite other groups into the garden to keep the space active and growing over summer break
  • Review: At the end of summer, ask what worked? What didn’t? Write down what you learned for next year!



September Teacher Spotlight: “Let’s Get Dirty!”

We want to highlight Nina Warren, a kindergarten teacher at Clay Elementary whose class has been a part of our Seed to STEM progam for several years. Ms. Warren is passionate about getting kids in the dirt, and after you read her interview, you will be too.

Nina Warren with students in Clay Elementary School Garden 02

What’s your favorite story from taking your class out to the garden?

Nina Warren: “One of my favorite stories is teaching kids about trees. They have life like we do, and they don’t like to be poked and prodded just like we don’t like to be poked and prodded. They need love and care just like we do.

“One day, we were in the garden sitting in the grass, and the kids were pulling all the grass out and they brought it inside. When we got in, the grass was all shriveled and brown, and they were asking me, “Ms Warren, why is the grass dead??” We talked about how plants are alive, and if we pull them out of where they’re growing, the plants die.  That’s something kids need to know.”


What is the biggest impact of taking your students outside to the garden?

Nina Warren: “Monday! Monday was the biggest impact. They were so excited about the peas that they planted in the ground. They remembered actually putting their fingers in the ground for those peas, and when they pulled [the peas] off, they said, “We planted these, Ms. Warren! We planted these! This is what we did!” and I was like, “I know! I know!”

“Bria doesn’t like peas, but the fact we planted them was the only reason why she ate them. These are the things we planted a while back, and now they’re grown. If more parents had gardens in their backyards, maybe more of our children would eat fruits and vegetables.

“The peas were one of the best things. I took pictures of it because it was so amazing. It made it all worth it. This is what the garden is all about. “


What do teachers need the most to be successful in the garden?

Nina Warren: “[Teachers are] so busy with all the other stuff we have going on, what will happen is we’ll be like, “We’ll just skip garden today, there’s so much stuff to do and we just don’t have time.” Because you left [the class some garden curriculum], I could read the plan and know what to expect when the students are out there. Knowing there is a plan in place beforehand so there’s not so much prep work for us, we can allow the kids to go out there and have the a lesson and then let them go out and explore nature.


What’s your favorite thing to plant or watch grow?

Nina Warren: My favorite thing to watch grow are the snap peas, because lettuce just looks like grass but the peas really do change and grow. We put a lot of work into growing those peas—we put our fingers in the dirt to plant the seeds, we put sticks in the ground for the trellises, we put the yarn around the sticks for the peas to climb, and they grew up them, and then all of a sudden the peas came out of nowhere. Kids look for detail, and the peas had lots of details to observe as they grew.

Nina Warren with students in Clay Elementary School Garden 01

What advice would you give teachers who want to bring their classes outdoors?

Nina Warren: “If kids find things, allow them to explore. Don’t let them know if you’re afraid. If you’re afraid, they’ll be afraid. At recess a few weeks ago, one of my students found a huge hairy black spider. She wasn’t afraid- she was playing with it, letting it crawl up and down her arms, showing the other kids. I was terrified but I didn’t say anything because I didn’t want her to be afraid.

“I think women especially tend to say, “Ew, kill that bug, get it off me, I don’t want to get dirty and I don’t want my kids to come home dirty.” Well guess what? Kids are supposed to be dirty! They’re children. Otherwise, what’s the point? If they’re dirty, that means they are touching, feeling, and experiencing the world around them.

“I have parents who send their kids to school in sandals. I tell them, “Sandals aren’t made for school. They need shoes they can explore and get dirty in.” We’re too busy trying to stay clean—let’s get dirty!”