SHIRLEY -- "It was Mars, years ago, when the middle school was here," said first-grade teacher Charlene Shorey, as she surveyed a fenced-in area with seven raised garden beds behind the Lura A. White Elementary School.
"It was red underneath, and it is the most alkaline soil," said Erica Frew, the parent of Sam Secor, one of Shorey's pupils.
The two were speaking about a new feature at LAW that they helped to create -- the LAW Teaching Garden.
Over the years, the Mars science project, set inside a 20-by-20-foot chain link fence, became a preschool playground. Then, last fall, when members of the community installed a new school playground, the preschool equipment was moved to the front of the school.
That left a fenced-in no-man's-land just outside of Shorey's classroom door -- but not for long.
The Evolution of a Garden
Last spring, when Frew informed Shorey that she would love to do something with plants with her class, "I told her about this huge project I had in my head," Shorey explained.
The project was to create a school garden, where students could connect with nature, learn about plants and environmental stewardship, and enhance their academic, community, and social skills.
"(Frew) looked at the soil and said we have to have raised beds," Shorey said.
She then came up with a plan to build seven 4-by-10-foot beds, and within days they were being constructed.
"CJ and Todd Moore donated the lumber, and
Shorey's student Chloe Woodward's mother Bonnie, who works at Weston Nurseries, elicited a donation from the nursery of seven blueberry bushes. The other plants around the perimeter, including a butterfly bush, two Alberta spruce, and a Kousa dogwood in honor of retiring kindergarten Sarah Jodka, were donated by Pinard's Landscaping and installed by parents Pinard, Kevin Heinz, and Mitch Kahn.
Laying the Groundwork
An inaugural newsletter sent to parents in late May produced a list of about 20 potential volunteers to help maintain the garden over the summer, as well as a number of plant donations of herbaceous perennials, vegetable plants, and seeds for the raised beds.
The stated mission of the garden is "to create a space where students, teachers, parents, and other members of the Shirley community can explore gardening, gain some understanding about where their food comes from, and have fun growing!"
There are to be no pesticides, unless approved for organic use, and no non-organic approved fertilizers, used in the garden.
After work on Wednesdays, Frew, with the help of students from the school's extended day program, began planting beans, corn, tomatoes, lettuce, carrots, pumpkins, herbs, sunflowers, watermelon, peppers, peas, eggplant, strawberries, zinnias, and marigolds. They even planted potatoes in burlap sacks, and flowering plants in a vertical garden made from an old wooden pallet.
"I like repurposing old stuff," said Frew. She said that after she acquired the used pallet from work, she first checked to be sure it was not chemically treated, to ensure that it would not harm the plants. She then stapled a double layer of landscape fabric over it, lined the inside with black plastic, filled it with loam, and attached chicken wire to the back.
She then poked holes in the fabric and plastic where she wanted to insert plants, and planted flowers in the top and all along one side. The result is a vertical garden of geraniums, nasturtiums, cherry tomatoes, Angelonia ("summer snapdragons"), and verbena that will become a wall for a compost area.
Plans for Fall and Beyond
"What I'm most concerned with is getting stuff for when the kids come back, because there is a lot of stuff you can do with fall gardening," Frew said.
As for funding, Frew said that Barbara's Bakery, a subsidiary of Weetabix, is moving from Petaluma, Calif. to Clinton, where Kahn is the facility plant manager. "Mitch works at Weetabix, so they want to do something," she said.
A producer of natural and organic foods, Barbara's also works to connect youth to the natural world and teach them the importance of good nutrition. The company created a 10-year, $50,000 grant program to establish organic teaching gardens in the Petaluma, Calif. School District.
With Barbara's commitment to help build "green" communities, Frew and Kahn are hopeful that Barbara's may be able to do something to help Lura White incorporate the LAW Teaching Garden into the curriculum, and to help it to grow.
Frew already has plans to build a couple of compost bins and a worm farm, for which she hopes to acquire the appropriate kitchen scraps from the school's food service department. "Then we can create our own soil," she said. "If we want this to be an organic garden, we have to have organic matter."
I'm sure that when she first asked if she could do something with plants, she thought she'd just throw some things in a pot," said Shorey, laughing.
"This is certainly more than I'd envisioned," said Frew, who is nevertheless thrilled with the opportunity to develop a teaching garden for the school.
Shorey and Frew, with their band of volunteers, will continue to maintain the garden over the summer, while making plans to integrate it into the school curriculum beginning this fall. Anyone wishing to volunteer to help can contact Frew at firstname.lastname@example.org.