They started with dirt, seeds and a grow light just outside the kindergarten classroom at Winchester Thurston School about a month ago. Andrew Shaner, general manager and chef, Metz Culinary Management, wanted to get the class excited about growing tomatoes, zucchini, kale, mini-lettuce, herbs, grapes and more.

It turns out, that innate curiosity and sense of wonder that shines so brightly around age five is the perfect time to get kids into the garden, Shaner says.

“This is the best age, because they are so excited,” he says. “They’re already looking forward to the next school year, when they come back as ‘big first graders,’ and see the fruits of their labor.”

Out of several heirloom and hothouse tomato varieties, Shaner selected a few late-harvesting tomatoes, so by the end of August, they’ll be ready to share in the cafeteria.

And the summer herbs and veggies certainly won’t go to waste, either. The school hosts a summer camp that’s open to both current students and residents of the community, so they’ll be feasting on freshness from the garden for eight weeks.

The garden is set up at one of the school’s two campuses in the Pittsburgh area, the City Campus, which houses grades pre-kindergarten through grade 12. The site used to have a house on it, which the school acquired and then leveled as part of a renovation project a couple years ago.

At first, the garden was just a small “salsa garden,” Shaner says, with tomatoes, onions and cilantro, but now it’s grown to at least twice the size, which means more learning opportunities for students as well as garden-to-menu options.

What’s Shaner’s advice for gardening with kindergarteners?

“The best advice is to be prepared,” he says. “I took tomato flats and broke them down ahead of time, and also dug the holes ahead of time.” This means more time to interact with the kids, and letting them help with garden skills that are at their level (minimal digging, but definitely let them cover the plants going in with dirt).

The kids wear gloves to keep little hands relatively clean (winning points with moms and dads, Shaner says.)

And a very important part of a school garden is integrating it with studies. According to Shaner, science and language arts are natural fits for learning while gardening.

“They were reading a story about peas in class, so we included some snap peas, and that made a connection with them,” he says.

And the ‘life lesson’ taught by gardening is illustrated best on the plate. Here are some of the ways the produce from the garden makes it onto the menu, something anyone with even a small school garden could try this summer:

  • Tomatoes aren’t the only things that can go into marinara sauce. At the Winchester Thurston School, ‘pizza sauce’ is often blended together with zucchini and summer squash from the garden, a little bit of stealth health.
  • Tomatoes can take center stage when stuffed with a quinoa salad, served chilled. Refreshing!
  • Kale is really catching on with kids nowadays. Shaner has served the leafy green sautéed as a side dish, raw in a salad with grapefruit, onion and asparagus (either julienned or rough-chopped, the kids are eating it), or as crunchy kale chips.
  • Sweet mini lettuce is a big hit with the students, as well. Since this variety is generally more expensive, “It’s smart for us to grow our own,” Shaner says. An early lesson in economics!