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A garden grows in Baltimore

(post, Caroline Lewis)

Here in the Willamette Valley, where almost anything grows and local food abounds, we sometimes forget that other parts of the country don’t have that same access to fresh food. Many families live in food deserts, urban areas where local food choices are limited to the processed junk sold in convenience stores. That’s why we are particularly excited about what our son Mike and his Baltimore City middle school, Green Street Academy, are doing with their new organic-gardening project.

Green Street Academy is a new public middle-high school in west Baltimore that embraces the green movement and the new career paths it will generate. To align with its mission of sustainability and to promote project-based learning in classrooms, Mike (a seventh-grade literature teacher) and other GSA staff members decided to tackle a vegetable garden this spring as a project for the entire seventh-grade class, roughly 60 students in all.

h3. The birth of a community garden

The vision to create a community garden onsite came to fruition very quickly once the GSA staff committed to the idea. In just two months, GSA’s staff and scholars have made remarkable progress: designing, planning, building, planting, and now maintaining a total of 17 colorful raised beds on the school grounds. An aerial view would reveal a whimsical touch: the beds are laid out in a giant “GSA” formation. The entire process is documented in a GSA gardening video Mike created for the project.

Verdura’s role in the project was to supply raised-bed-frame plans and to provide ongoing advice on garden planning, organic growing, and pest control. The real effort, though, has been on the part of the staff and the students, who have worked in small groups within each homeroom and who decided on everything from their group names to the specific plants they’re growing in each bed. 

[%image reference-image width=400 float=right caption="Working hard to build a garden."]

Scholars considered a wide variety of fruits and vegetables for the garden. Each was evaluated according to taste, of course, but also according to the food miles each particular crop has to travel from where it is typically grown. The intention was to reduce the community’s overall environmental impact by choosing to grow crops that would otherwise have to travel far to reach Baltimore. 

The final list includes strawberries, watermelon, tomatoes, cucumbers, sweet peppers, carrots, green beans, and radishes. Companion plants such as rosemary, basil, sunflowers, and marigolds were also researched and included in the mix. Students then explored the growth habits, spacing, and other needs of each of the plants they decided to grow, and mapped out their own square-foot garden plans for each bed.

In the classrooms in early June, work started with a big-picture exploration of how gardening can create a more sustainable world. Then, students learned the whys and hows of raised-bed-frame construction and created their own designs for frames as well as their own planting plans. The students were responsible for calculating materials requirements and costs for their frames as well. The resulting designs, blueprints, and budgets were then submitted to the school administration for approval, at which point the real work began.

Based on their research, each of the four seventh-grade classrooms then built their frames, painted them with images representing GSA and its mission, and installed them with soil and landscape fabric. Some plants and seeds were purchased, but many were donated by generous growers at a local farmers' market, who embraced the school’s project enthusiastically. More landscape fabric and bark mulch for the pathways were added a few weeks after the initial installation was completed.

Over the summer, Mike has primary responsibility for daily watering and caring for the garden, although the long-term goal is to have the greater school community take over. A number of students and staff members are assisting on a voluntary basis with mulching, watering, replanting, weeding, harvesting, and other activities throughout the summer.

h3. Feeding a community’s needs

Food harvested from the garden will be distributed to students and their families. Priority is given to families who participate in garden construction and maintenance, although anybody who wants to share in the produce may do so. The school is planning to host harvest days in the summer and fall when families can pick up food.

[%image boxes float=left width=400 caption="Lots of room to grow food."]

Most of the GSA students live in food deserts. According to Mike, it's not uncommon to see scholars walking into the building in the morning eating Doritos or candy for breakfast. For a majority, this experience has been their first exposure to growing their own food and to the philosophy and practice of growing organically. 

Mike has already gotten feedback on the impact the garden is having: “One scholar told me she got into an argument with her mother about why they should buy organic cucumbers at the supermarket instead of conventionally farmed ones. Others have expressed their excitement over using the food during our Cooking Club next year.” Such involvement will likely broaden the positive impact of the garden.

As to how the garden will grow from this point, Mike says the possibilities are many: “I'd originally envisioned this project as a one-time deal, but the rising seventh-graders have already begun hounding me about expanding next year, and it's been incredible to see how many disparate groups are brought together by something as simple as a garden: our school custodian, random passersby walking with their children, not to mention scholars' families and staff members. 

“People just want to spend time in the space. The GSA staff plans to capitalize on this newfound interest in the garden space; our rising seventh-graders will build a living classroom reading area near the garden during a summer academic program. I imagine that we'll grow our garden capacity somehow — there's certainly plenty of room nearby — though I'm not sure what this will look like. Ideally we'll expand based on the needs and desires of the community. If there's a hunger for more next year, I'm sure our scholars will be more than happy to start building again.”

h3. How can we all help?

[%image boyz float=right width=400 caption="Building a garden takes teamwork."]

In a big-picture sense, Mike’s goal for the GSA community is to inspire every family to create “some sort of garden space: an Earthbox on a porch, a small raised bed on a rooftop (totally possible on Baltimore row houses!), or a traditional row garden in an otherwise grassy backyard. We can all stand to become a little more self-reliant, healthy, and environmentally mindful by growing our own food.” 

If you would like to help GSA maintain and expand the garden, Mike has several suggestions. First, the school is supported by a nonprofit organization, the GSA Foundation, Inc., that welcomes donations. Secondly, the GSA Gardening Club, a group of 25 sixth- and seventh-graders who are deeply committed to the garden, depends upon contributions of cash, supplies, or gift certificates to gardening or building-supply retailers to maintain the garden. Please email Mike directly if you’d like to make a contribution to either the GSA Foundation or the GSA Gardening Club. 

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Mike suggested emails of support to the scholars at GSA, who would enjoy praise or recognition for their hard work. These may also be sent to Mike’s email address.

boyz, l

reference-image, l

boxes, l