BELFAST, Maine — A sudden hailstorm meant the kids pulling dandelions and witch grass at the Troy Howard Middle School Garden Project on Thursday afternoon were due for an unscheduled break.
They dashed, giggling, through the pelting ice and pulled up short in a warm, sheltered hoop house where spicy mustard greens and spinach are thriving.
“My favorite part is just being outside,” said Desi Dodd, 12, of Belmont, who has been working in the organic garden “all year.”
Although many classroom-weary students appreciate the chance to do some hands-on work, RSU 20 agricultural coordinator Jon Thurston said they are learning more than how to do garden chores, even as they plant, harvest and make compost.
“They’re middle schoolers. They’re active. They learn by doing,” Thurston said. “They learn that parsnips are good, and squash isn’t that bad. They learn a lot about science and math. And then, they grow a garden.”
The garden project formally began in 2000, with the intent to provide an outdoor learning experience for the school district’s children. Over the years, the project has kept right on growing, thanks to the enthusiasm and imagination of the adults and kids who work there and love it.
On Saturday, the school will hold the Maine School Garden Day, featuring information about starting similar projects, extending the growing season in unheated greenhouses, and integrating math and language arts into garden projects.
Recent additions include the outdoor kitchen, which soon will be usable year-round thanks to community donations that have allowed students to build a solar hot-air heater out of soda cans spray-painted black and to install radiant heat in the cement floors.
“It’s like a science lab, it really is,” Thurston said of the expanding garden project area, located behind the school.
Thurston hopes next year the school will be able to provide “community supported agriculture,” or CSA, so residents can enjoy the fruits of the garden.
Last fall, the school harvested more than 3,000 pounds of Swiss chard, and 80 varieties of heirloom tomatoes, carrots, onions, potatoes and more. Students chomp on their produce in the school cafeteria, donate what they can to the local soup kitchen, and sell the rest at the farm stand and through the Belfast Co-op. There, hungry shoppers bought 1,000 pounds of the Swiss chard this year.
That’s good news because financial constraints have meant the garden project must be more self-sufficient, Thurston said. It has been able to generate its $5,000 annual budget by itself through the sale of vegetables, seeds the students harvest from their vegetables, and donated seeds they repackage.
“This year has definitely been a banner year at the co-op,” Thurston said. “We’ve sold more than ever before.”
The bumper crop of chard has meant the middle school students have learned a lot about commerce, too. Alli DellaMattera, 13, of Belfast said students help Thurston bring the greens to the co-op, where they weigh the delivery and do the math for the paperwork.
Alli and Autumn Jackson, 13, of Searsmont both take part in the school’s Ecology Academy, where students work in the garden and learn about sustainability.
“I like harvesting the best,” Alli said. “We put all of our time into planting, and it’s cool to see all the stuff we’ve planted. Especially the carrots. Those are the best.”
“They’re so much better,” Autumn said, noting that she can tell the difference immediately between the homegrown kind and the ones that were shipped from California.
The two girls showed off the compost they’ve been working on and recounted their rescue of a newly hatched chick, all in the warm, humid air of the school’s greenhouse, which was redolent of green, growing things.
Working in the garden is hard, they said, but it’s worthwhile.
“I think it’s all fun,” Alli said.
For more information, visit www.gardenproject.wordpress.com.