“Watching a tiny grain turn into a 12′ sunflower is something you can’t experience on a computer.” – The Troy Howard Middle School Garden Project
The School Garden of the Month feature has a few intentions: to highlight the work of school garden educators in Maine, to show the incredible possibilities that exist in school garden programs, and to provide models and resources for gardens around the state. It can be intimidating to see the success of some of these sites, but hopefully by seeing the trajectory, you can draw some inspiration and take your program to the next level, one small seed at a time.
When discussing model school gardens, one would be remiss not to mention Troy Howard Middle School. Educators Steve Tanguay, Don White, and Linda Hartkopf began the program in 2000. Using their combined abilities, they wrote grants and received funding to start the program. Mr. Jon Thurston was hired on as the Project’s Agricultural Educator. With strategic partnerships, they worked with the administration to designate a garden space. They built a heated greenhouse. They collaborated on an integrative garden curriculum. They worked with school food service and created a path to bring produce into the school cafeteria. They designed a composting system to limit food waste and close the loop. The collective efforts of this team working with many other staff members and students laid a strong foundation for the extensive, well-developed program that exists today.
Project Purpose (from the Garden Project website):
“Our program uses the theme of school gardening, composting and seed-saving to introduce a curricular framework and projects that integrate sustainability throughout the middle school curriculum. …Young people discover how gardening can be a compelling way to make a real difference in their homes, schools and communities.”
A Team Effort
The MSGN is delighted to highlight another Board member – Jon Thurston, the first Agricultural Educator at Troy Howard, who has been in the school garden world for well over 25 years. He and Mr. Neil Lash began the Medomak Valley Heirloom Seed Project in 1991, which now saves and distributes over 800 unique varieties of seeds. He served as the Horticulture teacher there for 17 years before leading the Project at Troy Howard. A true go-getter, hands-in-the-dirt kind of leader, Jon is ready to spring into action and put the immense library of school garden knowledge he has amassed to use. He is a fantastic resource, and can be reached at email@example.com. (Are YOU interested in joining the MSGN Board?? Contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org)
Stepping into Jon’s garden boots (figuratively speaking), Mr. David Wessels is fantastically juggling the produce sales, seed saving, seed starting, collaborative and cross-curricular lesson planning, food service connections, fruit tree pruning, maple sap harvesting, and composting – all while enjoying the early stages of fatherhood (congratulations David and Ali! And welcome to the team Oona!).
Here’s a little breakdown of where they’re at as of now:
- Farm stand – they harvested over 1000 lbs of produce last year
- Composting – a group of students manages the compost and monitors inputs from the cafeteria
- Seed Saving – saving heirloom tomato and cucumber seeds now being sold at the Belfast Co-Op, as well as in the school
- Providing Local Food to the Community – they are currently (in February!) harvesting Swiss Chard twice per week to sell to the Co-Op (thank you to the Belfast Food Co-Op for supplying school grown produce!)
- Sugar Shack – David and his students are getting ready to tap their maple trees to make their own syrup
- Seedling Sale – they’ll start planting seeds for the sale very soon and you should too!
- Fruit trees – currently, they’re pruning their fruit trees and preparing them for good fruit set in the coming growing season
Sound overwhelming? Remember that this is a team effort, and with the support of teachers, food service staff, experienced mentors, and of course the students, David is not alone in these efforts. The systems in place have been designed through 17 years of trial and error, lots of record-keeping and reflection, plants thriving and shriveling, students flowing through the cycles, and fellow staff members being flexible in working with the garden. And they are still developing.
The Belfast Coop is now advertising: “…select heirloom seeds from Belfast’s Troy Howard Middle School Seed Saving Program…..Our local produce supply currently consists of root crops, chard and mesclun from Troy Howard…..That’s right, we are all eating more locally!”
They’ve won numerous awards, from MAITC Teacher of the Year recognition to the 43 first prize blue ribbons (with #SchoolGardenGrown stickers!) at the Common Ground Country Fair in 2016. Recently, the Belfast Bay Watershed Coalition (BBWC), a Belfast-based nonprofit supporting conservation and stewardship of the Belfast Bay watershed resources, honored Troy Howard with its Conservation Award. According to the Bangor Daily News, “the Project’s emphasis on conservation, community connections, and relevant, well-rounded education” earned them this recognition, which was presented at the Belfast Free Library with a presentation from former and present staff and students.
A summary of the Garden Project (from David Wessels)
The Garden Project provides experiential, garden-based learning to students in grades 6-8 at the Troy Howard Middle School. Students manage extensive vegetable gardens, orchard and a four-season greenhouse as part of their school curriculum, participating in every aspect of the garden from seedlings to mulching, pest control, soil building, harvest, processing, marketing, cooking and seed-saving. The garden provides over 1,000 lbs of fresh produce to the cafeteria each year and sells produce through its farm stand and through the Belfast coop. Students produce veggie seedlings in the spring to supply other school gardens, and to sell at their annual seedling sale. The Garden Program also hosts “Get Growing!” an experiential summer garden camp for youth of all ages. For more information on the Garden Project visit our Facebook page or email David Wessels at email@example.com.