Crystal England

Ketchum Recreation Department & Watch Me Grow Garden

As youth recreation supervisor for City of Ketchum, Crystal England wants to provide every kid with hands-on opportunities to grow and eat fresh fruits and veggies. In addition to offering a daily gardening and cooking program to Ketchum Recreation Department summer campers, she has initiated an after-school gardening club and overhauled the the city's after-school snack program. Her next goal: expanding the city's Watch Me Grow Garden to allow the larger community to engage in edible gardening and environmental education programming.

We spoke with Crystal to learn more about her food philosophy and vision: 

What is your background, education and work experience in relation to food and gardening?

Ever since I was little, I knew I wanted to make a difference in the world. As a child, I attended school field trips to places such as Lowry Nature Center in the Twin Cities area of Minnesota. Inspired by author and naturalist Jim Gilbert, I dreamed of becoming an environmental educator. After graduating from the University of Minnesota, College of Food and Agriculture Department with a bachelor of science degree in environmental education and recreation resource management. I obtained a job with Three Rivers Park District in the west suburbs of Minneapolis. Working for 10 years as an interpretive naturalist, I fell in love with plants and trees. Through my programs, I inspired others to become earth stewards. I also worked for the City of Minneapolis as a garden naturalist at the Eloise Butler Wildflower Garden. I operated the visitor center, studied herbalism and conducted tours through the three unique ecosystems, highlighting medicinal plants and the native wildflowers that grew among them.

When I moved to Idaho, I wanted to continue teaching outdoors. Upon researching schools for my daughter, I discovered Waldorf Education and became actively involved in the start up of Syringa Mountain School, a Waldorf-inspired charter school. In the founding year, I was hired to be the Farm and Garden science teacher. This career change gave me an opportunity to continue teaching outdoors with plants but through new topics and themes. As the sustainability committee chair, I designed the natural playscape and garden space for the school. I led the school garden project with the students, parents, teachers, and community support. Together we built a garden from a vacant, polluted lot. With the help of colleagues, I learned more about gardening and quickly became passionate about promoting healthy eating habits. Through the garden curriculum I designed, I encouraged hands on experiential learning while instilling values of nutrition and appreciation for earth stewardship.

In 2018, I became the youth recreation supervisor for the City of Ketchum. Within that job, I coordinate and manage the Watch Me Grow children’s education garden, which serves youth from preschoolers up to age 14.  I have begun now to expand the garden program to reach beyond summer camp. In the fall and spring, Hemmingway’s primary classrooms visit one to four times a month. The afterschool program started a gardening club and the youth recreation leaders conducted community service, building a compost system for the garden. Several preschool groups visited the garden last fall.  

When and how did you learn to grow your own food?

After graduating college, I lived in a duplex and my older neighbor was into flower gardening. She encouraged me to start container vegetable gardening since we were renting and unable to change the landscape. So I experimented. In Minnesota, it was not too hard to grow beans, tomatoes, carrots, lettuce, and even squash in a bucket. We were very successful. From there, I learned how to grow food on the job as the Farm and Garden science teacher at Syringa Mountain School. I found throughout my years gardening that I have a green thumb, but I still consider myself a novice. A year ago, I purchased my first house on one acre of land. I have dreams and inspirations to create a garden space that will one day benefit the bees, my family and the community.

How are you engaging kids around food through your role at the Ketchum Recreation Department?

When I became the youth recreation supervisor, it was obvious that the snack program in the afterschool program needed a change. The majority of the snacks being served were processed, frozen and fried foods. So my colleague and I implemented a new healthy organic and, when possible, locally sourced snack program last year that would engage the kids around food.   Kids in the afterschool and summer program help prep the food for the community afternoon snack. The summer camp has a new daily cooking and gardening class that each group of kids attends weekly. Through these classes, we now serve fresh and raw food snacks that come from the Watch Me Grow Garden, farmers market or local stores. In the garden, campers harvest things such as rhubarb, strawberries, apricots, green beans, apples, potatoes, carrots, and tomatoes.  We have made snacks such as rhubarb bars, strawberry popsicles, apricot syrup, dehydrated apple and potato chips, soups, muffins, and fresh salsa.  Having the kids grow, harvest, process, and cook their own snacks has created exciting engagement with hands-on experiential learning.  

Why are you passionate about teaching kids to grow and eat nutritious food?

Good health has been my number one priority as a parent. When I researched diseases and how poor eating habits can lead to them, I knew I needed to make a difference with the community. I started with small changes, first with my family. I began making everything from scratch and using sugar, flour and oil alternatives in my baking and cooking. From my experience, I know not all kids have the same opportunity at home. Food is a way we connect to children, to nature, to life. Bringing healthy nutritious experiences to others is important to me because I believe everyone should have open access to fresh local food. I am passionate about teaching kids to grow and eat healthy food because I ultimately care about others health and well-being. I think we can reach out to those in need and empower the youth with knowledge and confidence so that one day, when they are older and raising their family, they can confidently plant a garden and make healthy food choices. In the end, this promotes and creates earth stewards.    

Describe your vision for a community Watch Me Grow Garden.  

Through the expansion of the current Watch Me Grow garden areas, perimeters and programming, I aim to provide our local community with an opportunity to engage in hands-on gardening and environmental education programming. Participants will spend valuable time in the fresh air, and have an opportunity to build relationships, network and exchange resources with fellow participants. Participants leave with a greater appreciation of earth stewardship.

My first goal is to expand the gardens’ perimeters and possibly include a small greenhouse shelter. I hope to design and build new gardens, increasing the number of garden beds and space beyond the fence line to include the surrounding turf area of the corner lot. My second goal is to create an outside edible garden kitchen space. This would be done by constructing and building a “kitchen pavilion” that covers a small picnic table area with counters and cabinets for preparing, washing chopping, and storing. This space could possibly Include gas grill and stove top for cooking, too. My third goal is to plan and prepare a local shared garden program.  Within the city limits, I would like to locate a plot of land that can be irrigated and provide opportunities for community members to “Grow Your Own.” In each plot, gardening and maintenance tasks would be done entirely by volunteers. Individual gardeners would work their own plots – planting, weeding, watering, and harvesting – at least once a week during the growing season, and they must also spend at least 10 hours a year to help maintain the rest of the garden. They would be required to keep the paths next to their garden beds weed-free and take proper care of the garden tools and hoses. At the end of the year, they must explain how they fulfilled their volunteer requirements before they can renew the plot for another year.

What is your favorite food to eat from the garden?

My favorite food to eat from the garden is probably raspberries. I grew up in a town that celebrated Raspberry Days and held a  raspberry festival every summer. The mascot was even a walking raspberry. When I was young, I would go find wild raspberries around the bike trails, parks and backyards. I love fresh food you can just plop into your mouth. Raspberries are the only fruit I really enjoy eating. Otherwise, I love snap peas, green beans, carrots, and summer squash or zucchini.

What is your favorite plant to grow?

I love to grow tomatoes. Tomatoes are a challenge, but they are so rewarding. It’s fun starting them in February inside and watching them sprout. Those little babies are then cared for just like my pet, watered, fed and given a little bit of warmth and sunshine. I love growing tomatoes because I also love to eat them raw, in salsa, pasta, stir fry, on my sandwich, in a salad or in my eggs. Tomatoes fit into almost every meal.  

What is one tip you would like to share with other gardeners or those interested in gardening?

If you do not know or if you are not confident, it is okay. Just experiment. That is the fun part of gardening. Learning each day as you go, season by season.

Who is your food hero?

Miles Teitge, a sustainable arts teacher, helped build, plan, and design the Syringa Mountain Garden with me. From his strong passion and desire, I learned about the importance of biodynamic gardening. He taught me techniques such as organic composting and showed me what organic growing truly meant. Thank you, Miles!  

What change would you like to see in the Wood River Valley region in terms of food?

I would like to see affordable organic food access in the Wood River Valley. I think people who have larger families and make a moderate salary still struggle to buy local and organic. Bringing the price down and increasing the supply would benefit many families.  

What do you like to do when you are not in the garden?

When I am not in the garden, I am busy spending time with my family! I have two daughters, two stepsons and my loving partner.  We love to go hiking, camping, boating, fishing, snowshoeing, and skiing. If we are not recreating, we are fixing up our house, cooking and eating together, and taking care of our animals: two dogs, one cat, six chickens, and one fish.

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