The old newspapers, carefully laid last week between rows of plants and wetted, are supposed to keep weeds from overcrowding the marigolds, tomatoes, squash, peppers and strawberries planted and tended by students at Buck Lodge Middle School in Adelphi.
With a bit of luck, rain and volunteer work this summer, students will return in August to just-harvested gardens and a new agriculture-infused science curriculum for sixth-grade students, said Kristen Da Cruz, the sixth-grade science teacher who oversees the gardens.
Also beginning this fall, seventh- and eighth-grade students at the school will be able to choose a gardening elective class, during which they will study nutrition and work in the school’s two in-ground gardens, raised table gardens and a hoop house — a small greenhouse-like building with sides that can be rolled up — scheduled to be built this summer, Da Cruz said.
“I like gardening, because it helps the environment, and you can plant healthy things, and you can also make a beautiful garden,” said Ryan Montague, a sixth-grader from Adelphi.
About half of this year’s estimated 70 sixth-grade students selected gardening from among three elective choices — the others were computers and creative writing — offered after state standardized testing in March, Da Cruz said. The sixth-grade electives won’t continue in the fall; instead, the gardening subject will be added to the sixth-grade science curriculum.
The success of the sixth-grade electives, however, prompted school administrators to use the 40 extra minutes that county middle schools will add to their school day this fall to expand the elective offering to seventh- and eighth-grade classes for the 2012-13 school year.
Though several county elementary schools and even a couple of high schools have gardens on-site, Buck Lodge is the only middle school now operating a garden and related classes, said Deborah Archer, a project leader with the Food Supplement Nutrition Education program of the University of Maryland Extension, which helps fund the gardens with annual renewable $500 grants, supplies and lesson plans.
At Buck Lodge, Da Cruz will adapt the sixth-grade science curriculum to include working in the gardens, which were first planted in 2010, and studying agriculture and nutrition year-round, she said. Lessons for Da Cruz’s four sixth-grade science classes will address the planting and growing process, clean water, nutrition and food preparation.
“It’ll tie in very well with our environmental science part. They get more confidence, [and] students seem to be able to relate it to older generations within their own family,” Da Cruz said, explaining the many benefits of infusing her science lessons with agriculture and nutrition instruction.
Jade Edmonds, a sixth-grader from Beltsville, said her grandmother worked on a farm as a teenager and was excited Jade, 12, is learning to garden.
Jovany Melgar, a sixth-grader from Beltsville, said he has learned how differences in climate between Maryland and his home country of El Salvador affect what types of plants can be grown in each location. Jovany, 12, said he’d like to plant a mango tree in the school garden, but it’s a tree better suited for El Salvador.
Not only do the Buck Lodge gardens provide science education, but they also offer students the opportunity to share their culture with peers, to socialize and to consider new careers, such as environmental science or landscaping, Archer said.
“You have this live classroom outdoors, and students are able to have hands-on learning,” she said. “We’re adhering to [state learning] standards, but we’re doing it in an outside classroom.”
If harvests from the garden increase next year, Da Cruz and students said they could try to serve some of the produce in the school cafeteria or put on small farmers markets to allow other students to purchase the fruits and vegetables.
But this summer, students who volunteer to tend the plants will eat the fruits of their labor, from strawberries to sweet peas, Da Cruz said.
“When [our strawberries] are fresh, they’re juicier than the ones in [stores],” said Bonnie Atta, a sixth-grade student from Beltsville who planted strawberries of his own at home after learning how to care for them in the school garden.