Growing Gardens, Growing Minds at Mount Desert Elementary

Growing Gardens, Growing Minds at Mount Desert Elementary

August 27, 2021

As soon as you walk into the garden at Mount Desert Elementary School (MDES), you’re transported to another world. Sunflowers towering overhead, morning glories twisting along the fence, and the low hum of bees buzzing about immediately envelop you. “It’s like a secret garden; an oasis not just for the kids and the community, but for wildlife too,” says Patty Kelley, garden manager and ed tech at MDES.  

For the past two years, Patty has been caring for the garden and teaching the students to love it as much as she does. She started working at the school in special education seven years ago after spending about five years teaching and gardening at Kids’ Corner in Bar Harbor. When MDES started searching for someone to plan and manage a garden for students to grow crops for the school cafeteria, Patty jumped at the opportunity to apply. She now spends half of her time as an ed tech with younger grades and the other half managing the garden. When school is out for the summer, she splits her time between the garden and Jack Ledbetter Photography in Northeast Harbor.

Plants and flowers with blue sky
Carrots and flowers awaiting students' return
Children wearing masks sitting in front of garden gates
Proud students in front of the MDES Garden last fall

Patty credits the community of Mount Desert with making the garden what it is today. When she first began working in the garden, Elly Andrews, Director of the Northeast Harbor Library walked over and asked Patty what her vision was for the space. Elly then shared her vision with the Garden Club of Mount Desert, whose members Patty said “truly made it happen” with a substantial donation. Two years and 2,000 square feet later, the garden is a place where students, staff, and community members come together to connect with nature. “I get visitors all the time,” Patty beams.  

Patty is almost giddy as she paws through a pile of dirt to reveal the treasure below. “Potatoes are my favorite crop for the kids to grow. They love to plant them first but digging for them is better than finding any chest of pirates’ gold. It’s the most fun to watch.” When MDES welcomes students back on September 2, they’ll get to dig up and enjoy these riches that they worked so hard to plant before summer break.  

Getting dirt under their fingernails and finding not just vegetables but the wealth of critters hidden in the garden is an important part of the experience. “The garden teaches children not to be afraid of bugs, spiders, and bees,” Patty explains. “It’s important for them to overcome that fear and to learn that getting dirty is part of the fun.”  

Woman standing in a garden with pumpkins
Patty Kelley, manager of the MDES Garden, showing off some pumpkins
Boy holding up a potato
Potatoes are a favorite of both Patty and her students

The fun doesn’t stop when the snow flies. Thanks to the Garden Club of Mount Desert, a grant from The Stroud Fund, and community donations, a greenhouse sits next to the garden and allows for kids to grow crops and seedlings throughout the dead of winter. Many of these seedlings are pulled in May in time for the garden’s annual seedling sale. “This generous community helped us raise over $1,000 from the sale this year,” says Patty, “and most of the monies were spent buying much-needed new tools, a wheelbarrow, and organic fertilizers for the garden.” 

Patty’s passion for the garden and the students who tend it can be seen in her regular updates to the garden’s Facebook page. She shares a plethora of pictures accompanied by thoughtfully written stories about everything from the pesky red squirrels exploring the bird feeders to the students playing in the spring mud. “Some children have never even been to a garden before. For many, this is their favorite time of day.”

Two children harvesting plants in a greenhouse
Child holding up plants in a greenhouse

Students tend to seedlings and harvest beets in the on-site greenhouse, even while large snowdrifts linger outside.