HOULTON, Maine — While most people have to wait for temperatures to rise and the ground to thaw before planting their garden, students at Houlton High School are getting a jumpstart on the growing season thanks to a new school greenhouse.
Under the direction of instructor Shelly Bouchard, students in the Breaking Ground program have been hard at work learning about growing techniques, identifying species of plants, coming up with homemade agricultural products and planting seeds to grow in the district’s new greenhouse.
The Breaking Ground program began last fall after enrollment in Bouchard’s French class had dropped too low. She was asked by the school administration to come up with a new elective course and came up with the idea of an agricultural program.
“I asked the students what were some of the things they might be interested in and the overwhelming response was learning how to grow food and plants, and how to identify plants in the woods,” she said. “Some wanted to learn what types of plants they could grow in an apartment and others just wanted to learn how to plant a garden.”
Thus set in motion the idea of coming up with a new course for students at the school. The course was originally titled “Plant A Seed,” but students opted to rename the course “Breaking Ground,” since they were breaking new ground in the type of class work being offered.
With the help of a grant, the greenhouse was constructed in September 2013 on property behind the school, with the goal of having students inside and planting in early spring as soon as temperatures allowed.
This spring, the students have been busy getting the ground ready for planting, while growing seedlings in cups inside the school building. On April 9, the students were hard at work, planting their tomato seedlings.
Unfortunately, the students learned first-hand that not everything goes as planned when planting a garden. On April 11, all of the seedlings died when temperatures inside the greenhouse became too hot. The district has since installed a ventilation system for the greenhouse and it was back to square one for the students.
“Breaking Ground has been a great learning experience for me this year,” said sophomore Morgan Nelson. “The program motivates all of us to participate in community service and fundraising activities. Breaking Ground is teaching this generation the importance of agriculture, which is a valuable skill for our community.”
“I have enjoyed being in Breaking Ground, because I’m always learning new things,” added senior Heather Smith. “We have learned to use toilet paper rolls and newspaper to make plant pots. I have been interested in starting plants at my house. So far I have grown cat grass, and now I’m in the process of growing sweet basil and green peppers.”
“In Breaking Ground, I learned how to plant a seed,” said sophomore Aaron Sewell. “I learned to water and care for it until it sprouted, and then to help it as it grew. I learned what plants can be planted near each other and get along, and what plants not to put together. I learned to transplant them and to help them bloom.”
Outside of the greenhouse, a variety of 55 fruit trees have been planted. The trees were donated by Tractor Supply Co. to create a small orchard for the students. Additionally, blueberry bushes have been purchased.
“Students came up with another fundraiser called Sponsor A Tree to obtain fruiting bushes and trees for another section of the field behind the greenhouse,” Bouchard said. “We have made and sold jars of dilly beans and started our own window sill herb gardens.”
Growing is not the only thing students have learned.
“Students collected particular wild plants to identify their use for either medicinal purposes or human consumption,” Bouchard explained. “We collected seeds to plant for future crops. We sampled recipes, including the fruit or vegetable of the day, to determine which crops we want to attempt to grow. We encouraged composting and the recycling of items such as jars, planters, drying trays, and containers.”
Community volunteers have donated resources and expertise to teach these students to be self-sufficient. Sponsored initiatives have included a schoolwide composting project, use of the new greenhouse, planning and maintenance of a school fruit orchard, common planting techniques for a school garden, community service activities, and marketing opportunities.
Students also designed a logo for their organization and are encouraged to promote their progress through public event opportunities.
During the winter months, students researched daily the nutrition benefits of the products they will raise, and compile a network of resources for easy do-it-yourself projects.
“Our goals for this first year of operation include teaching students to create a garden layout according to recommended companion planting guidelines, and to test these techniques in a controlled environment,” Bouchard said. “We analyze soil compositions and provide amenities where necessary. Students study the growth cycles of the plants they choose to raise, from germination, to maturity, and then back to seed for saving for the next year. We collaborate with local businesses for recycled and repurposed items, seeds, equipment and much needed supplies. Breaking Ground strives to build a network of contacts with the vendors at our summer Community Market, without threat of competition. The reception has been favorable and supportive.”
During the second semester, students in the program also made homemade dog treats to donate to the Houlton Humane Society; made homemade dog toys; planted cat grass plots; built a database reference of plants including herbs, fruits, vegetables, berries, weeds, flowers; and continued to make seed tape strips.
They also began placing orders for plants to grow in the greenhouse; made organic cleaning solutions; made planters from recycled items; and started trays of flowers to be planted around the school.
Students have attended various functions, such as an open house at the Took A Leap Farm in Houlton and were involved in the Animal Ark Sanctuary Open House, and have volunteered picking carrots for Dale Flewelling’s Friends of Aroostook.
“As this project evolves, students will be responsible for setting new goals and achieving them, creating a business plan for marketing, exploring farming and small plot gardening techniques, recording their experiences, and promoting a healthy lifestyle,” Bouchard said. “They have already been assigned individual tasks such as creating the logo, designing promotional posters, designing letter templates and thank you cards, creating a Facebook page, filming a promotional video, and keeping documentation through pictures. I am extremely proud of what they have accomplished. Our community support so far has been outstanding with the many donations, suggestions, and invitations. We are so grateful to have such a supportive community and administration.”