In the Dirt
A small but dedicated, group of Wilton High School students go home covered in dirt on a regular basis. No, they aren’t members of a co-ed mud-wrestling team. These kids volunteer in the high school’s organic garden. Started just three years ago by Jim Hunter, an Environmental Studies teacher, it has given students an opportunity to put their environmental science curriculum to practical use.
The concept for the garden grew out of Hunter’s involvement with Millstone Farm, an organic farm located in north Wilton. “Although both my grandparents were big gardeners, I didn’t grow up gardening. I started volunteering at Millstone Farm, and while working with Annie Farrell, we brainstormed about creating an organic garden at the high school,” explains Hunter. He enlisted the help of several interested students, and together they wrote a proposal for a garden and presented it to the Board of Education.
After the BOE approved the project, Hunter secured funding from the Finks, owners of Millstone Farm, and a grant from Newman’s Own Foundation. Students organized a two-day plant sale to raise the balance of the money. “We broke ground in June 2010. Although we got a late start, we had a reasonably good harvest,” says Hunter. Since then, the 1700 square foot garden, located at the south end of the school facing Catalpa Road, has produced more every year. “In 2011, we harvested 860 pounds of produce; in 2012, nearly 1200 pounds,” says Hunter.
“We grow cucumbers, pole beans, carrots, parsley, tomatoes, radishes, several kinds of lettuce, broccoli, kale, beets, and herbs, “says Cathryn Duemmler, who got involved her junior year, was in charge her senior year, and still helps out over her college vacations. During the school year, most of the produce goes to the high school cafeteria. “While many area schools are starting organic gardens, we’re one of the few with a connection to the cafeteria. Most schools have difficulty because of issues with proper food care and handling. We’re very fortunate our cafeteria is willing to work with us,” explains Hunter. The garden also contributes produce to Community Plates, a not-for-profit organization that rescues surplus food from restaurants, farms and grocery stores and provides it to people in need. “We gave Community Plates 300 pounds of produce last year,” he adds. The students also bring some of what they grow home to their own families.
From late spring through the fall, the volunteers spend their time planting, mulching, watering and weeding. During late winter and early spring, they germinate plants in the adjacent greenhouse. “We have several hooped beds so we can grow vegetables like beets and carrots through the winter. Because it is south-facing, and borders a brick wall which absorbs heat, the garden stays a bit warmer,” explains Hunter. This past year, the PTSA donated funds to purchase two sheds, one for inside the garden and another to store the wheelbarrow and soil bales.
The teens cite many different reasons for getting involved. ”After a day of difficult classes, working in the garden is great stress reliever. When I am planting a flat, I don’t think about anything else but putting each seedling into its respective hole. The fact that what we grow helps the school cafeteria and Community Plates makes our work even more rewarding, “ admits Stephanie Hubli, a senior who assumed Cathryn’s leadership role. Adds Adam Toris, “I joined after taking AP Environmental Science with Mr. Hunter because I got really interested in what I could do to help the environment.”
While not an official club, the core group of volunteers meets Tuesday and Friday after school; other kids drop in when they have free time. “There is a lot of camaraderie; the kids joke around, but they are very dedicated and self-motivated. They’ll ask me what needs to be done, I give them a list and they go do it,” says Hunter. They also raise all the funds needed to keep the garden going. “They sell tomato plants, eggplants and pepper plants, and herbs every May at the Wilton Go Green Festival or the Village Market. And they hold bake sales,” says Hunter. “The garden is a great way for kids to reconnect with the land. Anyone who wants to can get involved. They don’t need any special skills other than a willingness to get their hands dirty.”