TOWNSEND -- For local students, growing 750 pounds of produce and donating it to a local food bank is a thing of the past. This year, more than 100 students will work to surpass that amount.
The community garden in a former courtyard at North Middlesex Regional High School was a beehive of activity after school on May 14. Students were installing more raised beds, preparing other plots and adding an aquaponics system. The system uses fish waste to fertilize crops, and the crops clean the water to return to the fish enclosure.
It was a controlled chaos orchestrated by senior Elisabeth Ryden of Pepperell. Under her guidance, students raked plots and outlined new beds with concrete blocks. She kept people on task and kept track of where things were.
"Elisabeth, do you need more supplies?"
"Elisabeth, do we have any more edge makers?"
The new beds were funded by a grant Ryden wrote and received from food distributer Sodexo. The $500 went a long way in adding six beds to the seven already in the courtyard.
Another grant for $1,000 from Youth Ventures intended to allow a group of students to make changes in the community funded the new aquaponics system. Last year, Waffles, Banquo and Phantom arrived
to test the water.
The three goldfish lived in the courtyard and wintered in a science room, said Therese Ritchie, a senior from Pepperell who is coordinating the aquaponics. This year, 10 fingerling tilapia will live and grow in a separate breeding pond. Their waste will be filtered through water that will feed a variety of vegetable plants before returning, cleaned, to the fish pond.
The plants include tomatoes, kale and broccoli, Ritchie said. The students need to find out which plants will do best in the system.
Last year the produce went to the Pepperell Aid from Community to Home outreach program. Supplying PACH worked well, Ryden said, because they distribute food weekly. This year, the students plan to also give produce to Townsend Ecumenical Outreach, an organization that runs a once-a-month food pantry.
The garden began about four years ago, said faculty advisor Ray Kane. The first small plot was created after students ripped out eight full juniper bushes by hand, roots and all.
In addition to the 13 raised beds, the garden has a corn area. The eggplant area has been converted to raised beds and there is a potato bin, Kane said. Four compost areas dot the enclosure.
The students work with a representative from Heifer International who comes out every few weeks from Overlook Farm in Rutland. The produce grown at the school is organic, but the soil needs fresh infusions of minerals to keep it fertile.
During the course of the summer, someone will visit the garden daily and others will work in it regularly, Kane said.
The organizing of the garden is a skill passed down from older students to younger, Ryden said. This year the organizers come from the sophomore, junior and senior classes.
The high-school students are also looking further into the future. An elementary school class from Varnum Brook in Pepperell will visit the garden in June. They will be able to get a taste of what their future may hold.