Happy Trails ELC shows that Kitchen Gardens can thrive, even in the tropics
For chef Annie Dugan, her husband’s early learning service, Happy Trails ELC, is something of a dream come true.
Ms Dugan, a chef with 30 years of experience, 13 of which have been in long day care settings, is passionate about establishing lifelong relationships with children and healthy foods.
Born in Ireland, Ms Dugan came to Australia with her husband in 2001, and was thrilled to learn about the Stephanie Alexander Kitchen Garden Foundation while working in a service in 2011.
“I started doing cooking activities with the children where time allowed,” she explained. “I saw how engaged the children became, how capable they were, their curiosity and encouragement sparked something within and I knew that this was something I wanted to continue doing.”
Mr Dugan and his business partner built Happy Trails ELC in 2021, with the service ready to open in February 2022.
The service soon gained a strong reputation in the community for its healthy eating and Kitchen Garden Program.
“When Happy Trails was in the planning stages, myself and the Director were onboard from as early as finalising the design of the building,” Ms Dugan explained.
“We planned to have a natural garden at the back of Happy Trails and we were going to have a Kitchen Garden Program up and running as soon as possible.” The service was able to sign on with the Stephanie Alexander Kitchen Garden Program in September 2022, once their garden was ready for planting and they had an allocated space to run kitchen activities.
Happy Trails ELC is in Muirhead, in the Northern Territory, where rather than the traditional seasons of Spring, Summer, Autumn and Winter, the weather falls into two distinct seasons – the Dry and the Wet.
In the Dry, which runs roughly from May to October, temperatures range from 21°C to 32°C, with low humidity and little to no rain. Days are sunny, and nights are mild.
During the Wet, which runs roughly from November to April, temperatures range from 25°C to 33°C, and humidity is high – often as high as 80 per cent.
Tropical cyclones, monsoonal rains and storms can affect many parts of the NT during the Wet, along with flooding.
Obviously these conditions can make running a garden something of a challenge, but it’s a challenge which Happy Trails have risen to.
“We choose to run our Kitchen Garden Program from 1st February to the 30th November,” Ms Dugan explained.
“Up until March we tend to keep our gardening activities inside, until the wet season passes. We get plenty of ideas from the Shared Table (the program’s online resource library) to keep us busy until the weather settles, then we are back outside potting and planting again.”
Room for all
The Happy Trails ELC Kitchen Garden Program runs on alternate weeks and the days are rotated so each child is included, Ms Dugan explained.
All six rooms at the service, which educate and care for children from six months of age until they head off to school, are involved in the program, with all the rooms working together to make each experience meaningful and to embed it in daily practice.
“When our garden grows,this determines what recipes we look for and what activities we will do,” she shared.
“For example, when our tomatoes and basil grow together, I might look for a recipe like simple bruschetta or a savoury pancake recipe containing tomato and basil. As our garden develops during the dry season, we do lots of visits,we learn to recognise plants through sight,smell,touch and taste. When it comes to picking our produce the children and educators are so very proud.”
As the year rounds out, the children are patiently waiting for two big bunches of bananas to ripen on the banana tree.
“Once this happens in a week or two, we will make a big fuss of our beautiful trees and each room will get to visit the garden and pick a banana each,” Ms Dugan said.
“Also in the garden we have some late tomato plants blooming and we are watching to see if we will get any fruit growing this late in the season. Our sweet potato experiment has proved very successful with three of the rooms having beautiful roots and shoots growing. These will be planted outside soon, as I believe sweet potatoes grow well in the wet season – let’s see!”
During the six to seven weeks the centre pauses their Kitchen Garden Program, the educators continue to do garden related activities with the children such as bush art and leaf printing and simple kitchen activities like getting the children to cut their own fruit for afternoon tea or spread butter on their raisin toast at morning tea time. A popular holiday event is “build a sandwich to see how many vegetables you can get between two slices of wholemeal bread”.
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