School garden springs into the classroom

BRISTOL — Students at Mount Abraham Union High School rolled up their sleeves, picked up their hoes, and got their hands dirty in the school garden last week. Overseen by volunteer Walter O’Donoghue, who runs the Mount Abe garden, a team of ninth-graders on Thursday turned the soil in the beds and began seeding a wide range of crops from spring lettuce and radishes to summer tomatoes and peppers to leeks and winter squash.
The garden, which has expanded from 700 square feet in 2009 to 3,000 square feet today, is playing an ever-increasing role at Mount Abe. While it provided more than 600 pounds of food to the cafeteria last year, and will provide more this year, the garden is also growing in educational importance.
For instance, science teacher Gabriel Hamilton next fall will begin teaching a new class called Biology of Foods. The course will explore the real-world application of science through hands-on agricultural practices.
“Ultimately, the goal of the class is to make science more relevant to the students’ daily lives,” said Hamilton.
But, before the popular course kicks off  (48 students have already registered for its first semester), students have been urged to begin learning about food from it’s beginning — in the soil.
So, on Thursday a small team of 9th-grade students enrolled in the fall Biology of Foods course dug into the soil in the garden of the southeast corner of the school building. What did they think about all this dirty work?
“I love it!” exclaimed April Rheaume of Starksboro. “Getting my hands dirty — it’s fun.”
“I don’t mind the raking, but I don’t like shoveling the poop!” added Lily Brown of Monkton.
“It’s fun,” said Brian Jewell of Monkton, “I really enjoy it.”
Both Matthew Cousino of Monkton and Will Van Buren of New Haven said, “I like being with friends.”
“I’ve never worked in a garden, so it’s OK,” added Van Buren.
“If some students are really interested in food and where it comes from, then they have an option to spend more time with it,” said O’Donoghue, while teaching student gardeners some tricks of the trade.
Furthermore, the Biology of Foods classes aren’t the only ones involved with the Mount Abe garden. Cynthia Brisson’s 7th-grade science class is cultivating seedlings under grow lights.
“We’re going to move some of the trays into the cafeteria so that kids can see the plants coming up,” said O’Donoghue.
Even the technology education classes are getting involved. Based on a design by O’Donoghue’s architect friend Tom Warner of Bridport, the woodshop is going to begin constructing a tool shed in early May with funds that O’Donoghue will help raise.
“The whole point of the garden is to get students learning about food,” O’Donoghue said. “By getting the woodshop class involved, that’s another group of students that has a connection to the garden.”
Additionally, O’Donoghue is looking to hire two students for paid work to help garden over the summer, when food will be sent to needy families and local food banks. In the spring and fall, the garden’s produce will go right through the double doors of the school’s front entrance and into the cafeteria.
O’Donoghue, a Bridport resident, has volunteered countless hours of his time and funded the entirety of last year’s garden. The 600 pounds of food that went to the cafeteria, the kids’ garden education, and the food given to local food banks were all personal donations of Walter’s time, energy, and money.
“It’s become a part-time job for me,” chuckled O’Donoghue. “But, I don’t want money to come out of the school’s budget for this.”
While he genuinely enjoys working with the kids, he can’t continue to pour personal funds into the garden. So, he’s currently exploring several methods to raise money.
As student involvement continues to grow, O’Donoghue has big hopes for the garden.
“Down the line we want a greenhouse, but we’re not ready for that because we would need students every day to care for it,” he said.
For now the garden keeper is content with the current level of student participation.
“This year is great because all of these kids are out here,” O’Donoghue said. “Last year that didn’t really happen.”
Student involvement is up and O’Donoghue is steering the garden on a course set to deliver to both the school and the community. He is particularly excited that the first crop of lettuce, spinach, radishes and peas should be ready to harvest in the current school year, so students who planted the seeds will see the fruits of their labors.
“This will be the first year we have food from the garden into the cafeteria before school lets out for the summer in mid-June,” said O’Donoghue. “It’s a student garden … it’s taking time and it’s starting to happen.”
 Reporter Andrew Stein is at [email protected]

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