Five years of hawking homemade applesauce and tee shirts fund a high school’s garden.
This piece first appeared in The Vermont Standard.
Half a decade of fund raising is bearing fruit this spring at the Woodstock Union High School and Middle School (WUHSMS). After five years of hawking tee shirts, peeling fruit for homemade applesauce and apple butter, and serving up locally raised turkey and vegetables at their annual harvest dinner, the school’s Farm to School (FTS) club is spending its savings to install a vegetable garden out by the football field. At a “garden party” on Tuesday, volunteers from the FTS program and the Vermont Youth Conservation Corps hoped to finish fencing and composting the 4,000 square foot plot, and begin planting.
“We wanted to get a garden on school grounds, so it will be accessible and visible,” says high school Studio Art Instructor and FTS committee member Katrina Jimerson of the long, but rewarding effort to get the garden going. So far, the FTS club has invested about $1,250 of their earnings on fencing and compost, but they’ve put in much more in sweat equity.
The club’s garden committee, a group of teachers, parents, cafeteria staffers, and students, has been meeting at least weekly since September to plan the vegetable patch, pick the site, and win approval from school administration. Then, earlier this spring, volunteers worked with the WUHSMS maintenance staff on the physically demanding part of the project. They dug out 280 feet of trenching for the garden’s perimeter fence, and sunk holes three feet deep for the posts to support it. A week of heavy rains impeded efforts to get the needed 28 stanchions into the ground.
“We had quite a time with the frogs and the water” that filled the postholes they’d dug earlier, says Jimerson.
At Tuesday’s party, volunteers planned to attach the last 80 feet of wire netting to the fence posts, spread ten cubic yards of compost over the surface soil, which they’ve already turned over twice, and set up four hay-bale-rimmed raised beds at one end of the garden.
Farm to School nationwide is a coalition of educational institutions and non-profits that hope to promote nutrition and education about food by minimizing the physical distance, and intermediary processes, between schools and the farms that supply their breakfasts and lunches. In Vermont, FTS programs are initiated by individual schools or communities, and supported with information and ideas by local non-profits such as Vermont Food Education Every Day and the Upper Valley Farm to School Network. In 2006, the state Legislature authorized “mini-grants” for schools wanting to begin programs; WUHSMS received $12,280 that year, but has since been on its own to keep its program going. The students in the FTS club at Woodstock look for and test recipes, prepare foods for taste tests, connect with local farmers, and engage in other activities to promote local eating.
The garden at school is not the FTS program’s first foray into growing; in the past, students have planted cucumbers, tomatoes, and cabbage at the Vermont Land Trust’s King Farm in Woodstock, and squash and pumpkins on local resident Kevin Taft’s property. But it will be nice not to have to plan transportation to get kids to the garden, says Jimerson, and the new plot is also wheelchair accessible.
She hopes that as a result, participants in the school’s Community Classroom, a program for special needs students, will be able to get involved in planting, watering, and photographing the garden’s progress during both their summer and academic year sessions.
The WUHSMS Horitculture Department is supplying seeds and seedlings for the garden. Two thirds of the planting space will be open, cultivated land for squash, carrots, parsnips, beets, cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, potatoes, and green beans. The four raised beds will be devoted to a “salsa” garden, with peppers, tomatoes, onions and cilantro. There will also be four cold frames, wooden forms with removable glass covers that FTS kids built in a seminar run by Vermont Youth Conservation Corps students, for seedlings and herbs. The produce will go to the school cafeteria, where chef Doug Kennedy will use as much as he can in meals. Jimerson says that the planned planting schedule is geared to delay harvesting as much as possible to late in the summer; Cloudland Farm and teacher Barbara Drufavka have offered root cellar space for storage. Surplus vegetables may be sold to raise funds.
The planned garden has already taken root in the classroom. Life Sciences teacher Melissa Fellows and her seventh grade students know that the earth in the school’s selected plot is sandy loam, because they tested it. As a class experiment, they sampled the soil and shook it up with water in a big soda bottle. A few days later, they measured the settled layers of sand, silt, and clay, then classified the combination using the US Department of Agriculture’s soil texture triangle chart. Through subsequent research, the students learned that loam, with its relatively equal percentages of the three components, is the best soil type for growing. “Clay doesn’t have a lot of drainage or air space for roots,” says Fellows, and while sandy loam isn’t perfect, “it is pretty good soil for planting.”
Soil classification isn’t the only way that Fellows and her students have embraced the garden. Since the beginning of the year, “they’ve been learning about where their food comes from, and growing their own food, and all sorts of things connected with the school garden,” says Fellows. That’s included creating their own small biospheres, growing multi-generations of plants to trace the genetics of certain traits, tracking down the origins of foods they typically eat, and planning home gardens. This week, they will share some of what they’ve learned, and hopefully raise some money. At Saturday’s Trek to Taste and next Wednesday’s Market on the Green, the students will have a teaching display. They’ll also be offering small “salad gardens,” different combinations of seedling tomato plants, cucumber vines, and greens, that can be easily carried home and planted. Donations will be plowed back into the school garden project.