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Students learn useful skills by tending orchards, gardens

Posted May 31, 2012, at 11:14 a.m.
Hampden students (from back to front) Emily Gonthier, Alexandra Buzzini, Madison Elkins, Grace Plaisted, and Jack Burridge check out their seedlings.
Hampden students (from back to front) Emily Gonthier, Alexandra Buzzini, Madison Elkins, Grace Plaisted, and Jack Burridge check out their seedlings. Buy Photo

In Maine School Administrative District 22, they’re not just growing fruits and vegetables. They’re growing gardeners.

That’s thanks to the fledgling MSAD 22 Apple Orchard and School Garden Project, which is now responsible for apple orchards on Hampden and Winterport school grounds and a gothic-style cold-frame greenhouse behind Reeds Brook Middle School in Hampden.

The mission of the project: “To plant apple trees and grow organic vegetables to supplement the school lunch program, encourage healthy snack choices, and help our students develop a love of gardening through an educational experience they will always treasure.”

Sounds simple enough, but it’s taken hundreds of hours by 100 students and dozens of adult volunteers for the project to come to fruition.

The project has its roots in an April 2010 meeting among a group of Weatherbee School students, their parents, Food Services & Nutrition Program Director Christine Greenier, and School Health Coordinator Kerrilyn Marzullo.

Those involved with the project set about raising funds. Alexandra Buzzini, Nicholas Parker, and Megan Cleaves, three of the Core Kids (students involved early in the project), gave a presentation to the Bangor Area Breakfast Rotary Club and received a $1,000 donation. Bangor Region Public Health and Wellness and Eastern Maine Healthcare Systems provided grants to help cover the roughly $5,000 cost of the greenhouse. Area businesses either donated supplies or provided them at reduced rates.

The apple orchards were planted in spring 2011 with the aid of Master Gardeners Gordon Reed and Lucas Rumler. Honeycrisp, Liberty, Golden Delicious, Wolf River, and Fireside varieties were planted at the Hampden site just above the superintendent’s office, and Honeycrisp, Liberty and Golden Delicious varieties were planted at the Leroy Smith School and Samuel Wagner Middle School in WInterport.

The greenhouse went up in June 2011. Sargent Corp. did the site preparation work, and Jeff Beswick, environmental horticulture instructor at United Technologies Center in Bangor, his students, and school staff then erected the structure.

The raised beds were built by Hampden builder Scott Hiller, custodian Dean El-Hajj, and students from the Hampden Academy Alternative Education department.

Vents were added to the greenhouse earlier this year when project leaders determined that it was too hot inside.

Students in five classrooms planted seeds in late winter to grow the seedlings to be transplanted into the greenhouse.

Transplanting day finally came on Friday, May 18. Project organizers were concerned that the dozen beds inside the greenhouse wouldn’t accommodate all the tender plants, so they got permission to have a small patch of nearby lawn rototilled.

First up were students of Jennifer Bowman-McKay at Reeds Brook, who planted cherry and golden tomatoes, peppers, and chives.

Bowman-McKay found ways to work gardening into her language-arts curriculum.

“The students and I have researched topics such as organic gardening, planting seeds indoors, vegetable gardening, tomato growing, and transplanting seedlings to a greenhouse,” she explained.

“Students researched by reading and being responsible for submitting notes on a school-wide template we use for a grade. They also summarized articles we read and handed those in for a grade. In addition, students journaled about their growth of each plant and described things like inches grown and care of seedlings. We also had a discussion about growing locally and contributing to our community here at Reeds Brook and later, beyond,” Bowman-Mckay said.

She said the experience benefited her students on several levels.

“My students have learned how to apply what they read in a hands-on fashion and bring informational text to life,” she said. “Every step of the way, once we learned something new, we just went ahead and did it. Students know how to grow things from seed using a window sill, some dirt, and water.

“We will take regular trips to the greenhouse and water as well as measure our plants. Hopefully they will see some vegetable growth before they leave for the summer,” she said.

Marzullo was coordinating the visits to the greenhouse that day. Concerned about the temperature inside, which was running 15-20 degrees warmer than the 70 degrees outside, she steadily watered the dry raised beds inside while pondering how to better open the slats of the vents.

When Donna Megquier’s fifth-grade class from Weatherbee School showed up, Marzullo encouraged them to split their string-bean seedlings between the greenhouse and the outdoor garden. Most students chose to plant inside, all the while complaining about how hot it was in there. When they finished up, Megquier cooled them off with a brief misting from the hose.

While waiting for the next class, Marzullo procured a ladder and climbed up to reach the vent at the back of the greenhouse. To cool the greenhouse’s interior, she wedged the slats open with rocks and empty plant pots.

Finally, Jen Jones and Kasey Cole arrived with their Weatherbee School third-graders. Forty kids and one flat of lettuce and radish plants didn’t add up well, so Jones set to work dividing up the tasks. While some students planted in the greenhouse, others were tasked with removed the grass clumps from the outside patch. A few boys got too enthusiastic, with Jones having to yell, “Stop throwing the clumps in the road.” Next the students carefully spread three bags of potting soil in their corner of the garden patch, then nestled the seedlings into the fresh soil, row by row.

Next, it took a village to move the hose to the far end of the garden. Although the dozen kids managed to loop the hose around a nearby tree, they did get it where it needed to be without wiping out the three lonely bean plants in the near corner.

Then, about three hours after the work started, the crops were planted. Organizers faced a weekend of watering shifts, but the plants were in their new home.

Marzullo later reported that the seedlings have adjusted.

“The plants are looking great,” she said. “We watered them a lot. The vents are staying open. The reason they are living, I believe, is because of the team watering effort over the weekend. It has been between 78 and 89 degrees inside.”

Bowman-McKay gave credit to how well students, parents, and staff have worked together.

“We are lucky to have such outstanding students here at Reeds Brook who are so willing to help each other and who follow directions well, so projects like this can be done,” she said. “It really is amazing to be a part of a group effort where you have teachers, custodians like Chris Gould, parents like Cynthia Buzzini, a school health coordinator like Kerrilyn Marzullo, a district nutrition director like Chris Grenier, a principal like Thom Ingraham and students, all working together to make things work.”

To get involved, contact Cynthia Buzzini at 862-3443 or Kerrilyn Marzullo at 949-2006.

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