Troy Howard Middle School students growing healthy greens

(Created: Sunday, February 11, 2007 3:06 AM EST)

It'�s not just the students at Troy Howard Middle School (THMS) who are constantly surprised to learn new things as they explore the almost limitless possibilities offered by that school's now 6-year-old Garden Project. Both figuratively and literally, the innovative learn-by-doing educational program is now breaking new ground with what�s known as its "Healthy Greens Initiative".

Seventh-grader Alex Blair, who has earned the current title pest control manager for the Garden Project, applies a spray of wintergreen oil to the underside of tomato plant leaves to combat aphids and whiteflies in the school�s large heated greenhouse.
Begun last year, this is an ongoing experiment that's demonstrating that even on sub-zero Maine winter days it�s not only possible to go on gardening but to do so to a degree that's commercially viable and, most surprising of all, without spending a penny on heat.

Anyone who has ever turned aside a loose pile of trash on a winter lawn and marveled at the patch of still-green grass that�s revealed might have some understanding of the principle involved. The truth is, many green plants including nutritious edible ones are not only hardy enough to survive freezing temperatures, given the chance they can go on growing straight through the winter.

At THMS, that chance comes in the form of two simple 12-by-20-foot hoop-style greenhouses. After constructing scale models last year, the students assembled the first of these from ordinary lumber, plastic electrical conduit and polyethylene for just $600. The second somewhat more substantial hoop house was assembled from a kit using steel tubing. It cost under $1,000 with Intervale Corp., a floor-covering manufacturer, picking up the entire cost through a grant.

The original $600 was raised by the students from proceeds of other garden program projects. These include the sale of rare heirloom seeds and of some 80 varieties of vegetables, fruits, herbs and cut and potted flowers, a lucrative harvest that last fall tipped the scales at almost 3 and a half tons.

At a time when property owners may look askance at the ever-rising cost of public education, the THMS Garden Project now pays its own way entirely. This even applies to the big 30-by-45-foot greenhouse purchased through an MBNA grant in 2001 when the program got under way. Unlike the two smaller greenhouses, this standard commercial model has supplementary heat in the form of an oil furnace. However, solar heat gain during daylight hours captured in the huge mass of growing beds inside ensures the furnace seldom comes on when the sun is shining. And an anonymous benefactor has this year picked up all costs of heating oil to maintain relatively balmy nighttime temperatures.

In the United States, Maine's Elliott Coleman of Harborside, onetime prot�g� of back-to-the-land visionaries Scott and Helen Nearing, has pioneered gardening in winter without supplementary heat. In Belfast, the district�s middle school students are not merely following Coleman down that partricular garden path, they�re systematically exploring diverse possibilities involving new varieties of plants and new cultivation techniques.

Among the greens being tried out are a variety of "cut" or loose leaf lettuces, varieties of spinach and arugula. The students are also raising a mesclun mix, an Asian salad medley of greens dominated by mustard family members like the Japanese mitzuma. Another successful cold weather crop from Japan is totsoi, a non-hearting Chinese cabbage similar to bok choy only smaller. The Garden Project strives to purchase locally and many of its new seed requirements are met by Fedco in Waterville and Johnny's Selected Seeds in Winslow.

Rochelle Soohey, left, and Lila Carpenter use a garbage can lid to block the glare on their laptop screen as Rochelle maneuvers a digital microscope attachment over the underside of a Swiss chard leaf to examine an infestation of adult and larval whiteflies.
The greens are marketed at the Belfast Co-op and used in the middle school lunch program where they've proven perhaps surprisingly popular. With support from Wayne Enman, the district interim superintendent, plans are currently in the works to use them at the high school as well. A survey conducted by project seventh-graders found 85 percent of students at the high school wanted the greens added to the salad bar offering there.

Investigations conducted by Garden Project students tend to be a lot more sophisticated than the typical (dare one say garden-variety) schoolroom projects most people think of when they hear about 12-year-olds studying the plant world, the sunflower seeds sprouting from styrofoam cups on the windowsill.

THMS students may employ automated probes to track temperatures every 15 minutes around the clock at various spots in the soil and elsewhere in the greenhouses as well as outside. This demonstrates the effectiveness of such factors as an insulative blanket of leaves banked around the perimeters of the greenhouses or of the low polyethylene-draped hoops over portions of the plant beds inside.

They may also use a digital microscope coupled to a laptop computer to view and photograph the eggs and adult and larval forms of such pests as aphids and whiteflies commonly discovered on the undersides of leaves, this to determine what particular varieties they are. There are, for instance, at least three species of whitefly to worry about, each of which is best controlled with a different natural method. This permits the students to judge whether they should perhaps use Encarsia formosa, a tiny parasitic wasp, or sticky yellow tape traps or some sort of non-toxic spray like wintergreen oil or a soap solution. Like everything else in the garden program at THMS, all control methods are non-toxic and organic.

Microscopic examination also allows the students to monitor the success of these control methods. They are particularly alert for the mummified remains of aphids, proof the wasps have successfully done their work and a new generation of little wasps is happily munching away on the inside in preparation to carry on their parents� mission.

Something else the students may employ is a refractometer, a tool borrowed from the vineyard where farmers have long used it to determine sugar levels in the wine grapes. The students do as well with all their crops including the greens grown in the two small greenhouses. A higher sugar level in the leaves is better because it�s indicative of plant health and natural resistance to pests. The refractometer may also be used to analyze plants for protein, carbohydrates in general, and specific vitamins and minerals. Further, it is used to analyze soil for mineral and nutrient levels so any deficiencies or imbalances can be adjusted accordingly.

But however sophisticated they might be, tools used in the garden program are merely regarded as tools. The staff most directly involved�program co-founder Steve Tanguay, who is nominally a seventh-grade social studies teacher; Jon Thurston, district agricultural coordinator and former SAD 34 school board member; Linda Hartkopf, district health coordinator; Unity College intern Hannah Brzycki; consultant Mark Fulford, a Monroe farmer and soil expert; and consultant Anna Kessler of Searsport, a master flower gardener, encourage the students to understand there is no substitute for meticulous observation and data collection, for making a thoughtful analysis of what they've observed and imagining new experiments.

The view down the length of the main greenhouse on a chilly January day earlier this week shows seventh-graders purposefully carrying out a variety of tasks with little supervision. In the foreground is a 6-foot-tall tomato plant whose fruit was already beginning to ripen.
One such investigation has involved tracking temperature variables in one of the hoop houses. During the first major cold snap of the season in early January, outside temperatures fell to 7 below zero Fahrenheit. Inside, however, once the sun came up the air temperature climbed quickly and appreciably and the crop beds remained unfrozen.

Even in the early morning hours before dawn when outside temperatures had been at their lowest, the temperature in one bed given additional protection under a low cover of polyethylene stretched over hoops about 18 inches high never got colder than 20 degrees. The plants were unaffected. At that temperature, according to Thurston, "growth may slow down to nothing but it doesn't kill them." Within a few hours, temperatures had risen to the point where growth could resume. Elsewhere in that particular hoop house, spinach seedlings had not only germinated under similar weather conditions but they were apparently thriving without benefit of the additional layer of trapped air afforded by the low poly cover.

At a public slideshow presentation in the school library two weeks ago attended by Enman, Assistant Supt. Bruce Mailloux, other district administrators and school board members, a dozen of Tanguay's seventh-graders compared relative nutritional merits of iceberg lettuce versus some other greens. For each variety of green, they showed the familiar pale heads on every grocer's shelves lag appreciably behind. Spinach, for instance, has almost three times as much protein by weight, five times the calcium, and more than five times the iron. In the vitamin department iceberg lettuce was at the bottom. Spinach had more than seven times as much vitamin C and 20 times the vitamin A. Leaf lettuces also proved clearly superior in every category tested.

Like all the activities within the THMS Garden Project, the Healthy Greens Initiative is proving successful at offering students opportunities and latitude to follow their interests and talents. Some students will be taking on the role of expert this spring in advising the older students at BCOPE, the district's alternative high school program, how they, too, can build a hoop greenhouse. Other youthful but now-genuine experts may be expected to participate next fall when THMS will host a New England-wide conference on school garden activities.

"Our main focus is to let every kid get involved in some way," says Tanguay, who notes statistics showing that by ninth grade more than 50 percent of American students have become disengaged from school and are at serious risk of academic failure and the lifetime negative consequences that so often entails.

Tanguay notes that more than a century ago there was a revolution in primary and secondary education, one led by educators like Thomas Dewey who argued for a more hands-on approach, a more experiential way to learn. School gardens became extraordinarily popular with tens of thousands of them blossoming up around the nation. "Educational leaders saw what they had been doing wasn't working," Tanguay says. "There were even school gardens in New York City's Central Park. Urban school gardens were especially popular, both with educators and with the students."

During a public presentation Jan. 18 of the Healthy Greens Initiative, Jon Thurston, the district agricultural coordinator, prepares to sit down and devour a salad of greens grown in two unheated greenhouses by the students. Rochelle Soohey helps herself and Lila Carpenter is already sampling the fare. The two seventh-graders earlier discussed a survey they conducted indicating 85 percent of the district�s high school students were enthusiastic about having the greens on their lunchtime menu, too.
The trend continued through the first half of the last century, particularly in wartime when so-called "victory gardens" had a not unimportant role in feeding the nation. In the intervening years, however, these programs were mostly abandoned. Now, says Tanguay, they're coming back because they work and they have such positive results. Speaking from 24 years experience as a teacher and what he's witnessed in this type of setting over that time, he explains the reason for this in simple terms: "It interests the children and they end up taking such pride in what they do."

Seventh-graders Rose Hyland, left, and Emma Bonneville record soil temperature readings in one of the unheated �hoop houses.� With temperatures outside in the single numbers, air temperatures inside were well up into the 40s. In a comparison experiment, one set of spinach seedlings gets special protection under a low polyethylene hooped structure while behind the girls leaf lettuce and spinach seedlings seem to thrive decently without such an advantage.

Reader Feedback
There are 59 comments on this story:

??????????????? wrote on February 13, 2007 12:44 PM:"this was so cooll it made me feel ggod inside"

chris,belfast me wrote on February 13, 2007 7:59 AM:"i liked this article alot it must of a lot of time, and thinking."

Kate, Belfast ME wrote on February 13, 2007 7:58 AM:"The article was well written and I liked how it when into detail about the different things we are working on in the garden. Thanks for taking the time to come to our school to write this article. "

Forrest, Northport ME wrote on February 13, 2007 7:55 AM:"I think that this was a very good artical and that the newpaper that the 7th grade is working on will be just as good. I hope it comes out as good as we hope so keep it comming 7th grade."

Kaycee, Searsmont Me wrote on February 13, 2007 7:54 AM:"This article was very well written. This describes the garden comany at T.H.M.S perfectly! "

Kariann Osgood ME, wrote on February 13, 2007 7:53 AM:"This article is well writen it has tramenduos details and great pictures. Its just like our green house. you did a great job."

Derek wrote on February 13, 2007 7:51 AM:"It is very good but long"

Ashleigh Cook, Swanville ME wrote on February 13, 2007 7:50 AM:"This article is well writing it has great detail and good pictures, it just like our green house."

Jessie Belfast, ME wrote on February 13, 2007 7:49 AM:"THis artical was very well writen. But a little to long I think for most people reading this. But other than that a very well writen and thought out artical"

Lila, Belfast wrote on February 13, 2007 7:47 AM:"I thought the article was very well written. The pictures of me were a bit odd, but that isn't what matters. The article included some very good information. Thank you, Peter Taber. "

Rochelle Soohey wrote on February 13, 2007 7:42 AM:""i'm in here alot! wooh! but anyway I think this is the best program ever theres a place in it for every one wich is the bets part of the hole thing and I sure love my part""

Dr. Bernie Eveslage wrote on February 13, 2007 4:46 AM:"Congratulations students on your great accomplishments! You are setting an inspiring example for all of society to follow. You are now the leaders in the "producing food grown locally" movement. You can now show the rest of us how to grow food and be independent of the commercial stores. I graduated from B.A.H.S. in 1970 (time flies when you are having fun) and I am so proud of your efforts and self initiative at this project. As America tries to wean itself off foreign oil and energy sources that contribute to rising CO2 levels we need more local food production and your method of unheated hoop greenhouses, natural pest control, organic compost, use of scientific measuring devices, etc. will lead Mid-Coast Maine in this much needed art. You are the leaders of the future and when you grow up and get families of your own I expect Waldo County to have hoop greenhouses in every neighborhood. Thank you for your work!"


anna belfast ME wrote on February 12, 2007 1:19 PM:"siera is sooo cool. she rocks...and she knew all of the stuff at this schoool I jus wrote in her name."

ROSENESS IN SEARSMONT wrote on February 12, 2007 1:18 PM:"Hey Also you can buy our wonderful greens at the Co-op and at our Garden Stand. Hi Seira"

Casie Knudsen , Belfast ME wrote on February 12, 2007 1:18 PM:"Wants to work in the garden altime and work in the garden hoop house."

Siera Belfast Maine wrote on February 12, 2007 1:18 PM:"i hope all of the girls in THMS does this next year"

ALYSSA FLAGG wrote on February 12, 2007 1:17 PM:"This was well rote and I think thet it had interasting informashion about plants and animals I think they worked hard on this article! ALYSSA FLAGG "

Brandon Hodgdon wrote on February 12, 2007 1:17 PM:"This was a well writen report with detailed things about what we have been working with, but there were a few errors that could have been fixed. It was also very informative."

anna belfast ME wrote on February 12, 2007 1:16 PM:"yo, this is pretty sweet just like me..."

Makayla, Belfast,ME wrote on February 12, 2007 1:16 PM:"" I think that this article was very well written, and that it explains very well I might add what the garden is all about". "I'm very happy that people will now get to read about what people do to take care of the garden, and how we are happy that our teachers have let us be apart of this project". Thank-you. "

Siera Belfast Maine wrote on February 12, 2007 1:16 PM:"I thought that this artical was very good. I didn't know all this stuff went on at this school"


SierA Slamin wrote on February 12, 2007 1:15 PM:"It's me again....this is sooo ooo ooo ooo ooo ooo oo oo o o o o cooool!!! dude, Happy Valentines day, everyone...*$"

Evan Drinkwater, Northport, ME wrote on February 12, 2007 1:14 PM:"Loves to work in the garden poject"

Sam Belfast, ME wrote on February 12, 2007 1:14 PM:"This article was extreamly informative, I'm also creating an article on the technology of our garden. It covers the specifications on the digital microscope, hoop house, probes, and many other aspects of the technical part of our garden system. Mr. Tanguay is posting my article on some sort of blog for our garden. But I enjoyed your article very much. All of the pictures were great as well. They covered most of the detail involved in the article. Very nice, Sam "

nobody wrote on February 12, 2007 1:13 PM:"Hi everyone do you like this alot?????"

Casie Knudsen wrote on February 12, 2007 1:11 PM:"Loves to write down the weekly greens and loves to be in the Garden company work in the garden stand."

SierA Slamin wrote on February 12, 2007 1:10 PM:"Hey, I am sooo ooo ooo ooo oo oo o o happy that i'm part of this, even though it is long. Oh, Hi Rose....."

SierA Slamin wrote on February 12, 2007 1:08 PM:"This article is sooooooo long but it is very well written. I am bored..but i enjoyed most of it. smile, God loves you."

Rosie Petunia, Searsmont wrote on February 12, 2007 1:06 PM:"I am very proud to part of this awesome program. I think that it is great that we can be a part of this. Go THMS!"

SierA Slamin wrote on February 12, 2007 1:05 PM:"This is an awesomely awesome report for THMS garden. you guys are doing a great job. I know God loves it."

chris caswell wrote on February 12, 2007 12:19 PM:"Who ever wrote this report must have taken a lot of time to think about what to write."

Nick searsmont,ME wrote on February 12, 2007 12:19 PM:"This was wirtten very good and I enjoyed the article very much thanks alot!"

Lindsay Belmont ME wrote on February 12, 2007 12:18 PM:"This article Is very good. If you didn't know about the THMS garden then know you now what we are doing. This is a well written article."

Dustin Nadeau wrote on February 12, 2007 12:17 PM:"This is a very good, very long artical on the Troy Howard Middle School Garden Project."

Kassie Carl wrote on February 12, 2007 12:16 PM:"This was a great report. I loved the pictures and the way the reporter wrote it."

Brianna Gonyer, Belfast Maine wrote on February 12, 2007 12:15 PM:"To see all the stuff people have done and to read what very one has done in the garden it is so cool. I never realize we did all this. We should have another ariticle like this."

Jennifer Charette, Belfast ME wrote on February 12, 2007 12:14 PM:"" THIS IS A VERY GOOD ARTCLE WE SHOULD HAVE MORE FOR OUR SCHOOL". GOOD JOB ON MAKING THIS ARTICLE!"

Sierra,Belfast Maine wrote on February 12, 2007 12:14 PM:"This article was great , very descriptive , and showed a lot of great things that we do in the greenhouse!!!"

Sarah Hierl wrote on February 12, 2007 12:14 PM:"This was a very well written article and we all appreciate it very much! Thank you for your kind comments!"

Steven Cook wrote on February 12, 2007 12:11 PM:"i thought that this is a very well wrighten article an there should be more like this."

Jordan Luther, Belfast, ME wrote on February 12, 2007 12:10 PM:"Thisis a very very very very very very very very very well written report on our T.H.M.S garden company."

Jordan Luther wrote on February 12, 2007 12:06 PM:"This is a very very very very very very long & good article on the T.H.M.S garden company."

Terryn, Belfast ME wrote on February 12, 2007 11:17 AM:"I thought this article was very intresting, and well written."

Aspen Ventura wrote on February 12, 2007 11:16 AM:"This is a very well-written artical and we all are very happy about it."

Emily Blood, Belfast, ME wrote on February 12, 2007 11:15 AM:"The article was good and well informative about the project and learning experience going on at the Troy Howard Middle School. I noticed that wherever there was supposed to ' marks there were question marks instead. The pictures taken show how well the students understand what the teachers are teaching them. It also shows that the students have learned to work well together. The article also states about the many things that the students are being able to participate in and learn about. They will be able to take this with them when they leave school and they will be able to have their own vegetables (by the way I am a THMS student)."

Taylor Peabody wrote on February 12, 2007 11:14 AM:"I like this artical alot. Thank you for taking the time to write about us im surewe all appreciate it. thanks alot this article was very good....."

Brooke Stanley, Swanville, ME wrote on February 12, 2007 11:13 AM:"I liked how the writer told everything that happened and added pictures to show an example of what is going on. I also liked how the writer added information under the pictures in the articles."

Gina Green , Belfast ME wrote on February 12, 2007 11:12 AM:"I liked how the writer told everything that's happening in the picture on the bottom like with Rose Hyland and Emma Bonneville were testing the soil temperature, and how there telling a example of whats going on. "

Tucker Sturdevant wrote on February 12, 2007 11:11 AM:"This is a very good article we appreciate how much time you took to write and mention everything about the garden project. very good..."

??????? ???? wrote on February 12, 2007 11:11 AM:"I really liked this artical I thought that it was very good."

Brooklyn Curry, Belfast ME wrote on February 12, 2007 11:09 AM:"I think that it is a good experiment to see what kind of greens or anything really in Maine's weather in February. The students have learned a lot from the garden to learn about bugs that might eat up the greens and that they might damage our garden. We have learned to use the utensils and tools to learn about the insects and look at the insects and see if they are damaging or helping the garden. We don't want any insects that will damage but we want all we can get for the insects to help the garden so we can grow greens that are healthy. This garden project is such a learning project that will always give me different kinds of information that I will be able to learn through out the years and use them when I'm older. I think that the garden project is such a good experience for kids of all ages and students like myself to help us learn about gardening and the garden project throught the years."

Richard york wrote on February 12, 2007 11:09 AM:"I really liked this artical I thought that it was very good."

Cody Corey wrote on February 12, 2007 11:07 AM:"This is a very nice,very long article about us. Good job who wrote it."

Rebecca Leonard wrote on February 12, 2007 11:06 AM:"This was a very good report and was well written and this person took a lot of time to write this. I think that this was very important and I think it is a good thing to write about."

Makayla Cummings wrote on February 12, 2007 11:06 AM:"This was a very well written report it had a lot about the green house that we all have been working very hard in. This report had a lot of description and was written very well"


Emma Bonneville wrote on February 12, 2007 11:04 AM:"I think that this report about the green house was very well written and it had a lot of specific and detailed descriptions in which helped talk about the facts."Copyright © 2007