Two Darby High School students are growing produce in the school greenhouse for the school lunch program and, in the process, learning life skills that they are passing on to younger students.
Those skills go far beyond planting and harvesting.
In the last five years, Darby Senior Morgan Shull also has mastered grant writing, fundraising, construction collaboration, and forging relationships to help her garden grow. She and her gardening partner, sophomore Evangeline Campbell, have turned the greenhouse into a student-led personal learning class.
“Morgan Shull wrote grants, partnered with community members and got the greenhouse up and running after it fell into a bit of disrepair,” said Darby teacher Bryan Dufresne. “Morgan and Evangeline have partnered with The O’Hara Commons & Sustainability Center and Executive Director Samantha O’Byrne. The girls have produced greens that have been used in the school lunchroom; it’s been awesome to see.”
But it’s also been a lot of work.
The large greenhouse – it’s about 20 feet by 30 feet and 20 feet high – was built 15 years ago on the south wall of the shop class. It originally was used to grow trees and had a hydroponic system for feeding and watering plants, but had fallen into disrepair.
Shull started reclaiming the greenhouse when she was in eighth-grade shop class. But she quickly learned she preferred playing in the dirt to building things in class.
“Shop class wasn’t really my thing,” she said. “I started by growing the lettuce for the shop teacher so I could be in here.
“We used to have raised beds but it wasn’t efficient, space-wise, so I had these tables made last year.”
Shull received funding and seeds by writing grants and contacting seed companies. Shop students made the tables from materials purchased by the greenhouse project.
“The welders that didn’t have a project took on the job of making a table and designing the best way to hold up the table tops,” Shull said.
She began growing vegetables and found that as the greenhouse heated up in the spring, she needed to water between classes, at lunch and after school.
“Last spring and summer I started pumpkins, cantaloupe and watermelon,” Shull said. “They were tasty and lots of fun. I had a plant sale and family, friends, the community and Trapper Creek Job Corps purchased my plants. I worked with the job corps, had a class with them and visited their greenhouse.”
Shull has been working on the greenhouse project for over four years.
She and Evangeline “take care of all the marketing, money, fundraising, asking for donations, growing and operation,” Shull said. “We do all of our research and outreach. We are everything. The teachers around us are very supportive and direct us to the right people.”
The greenhouse has grow lights to extend the day, giving the plants the 12 hour of lights they need for active growth. It has some heating pads, small fans, and donated items like planters and shelves.
“We’ll definitely need money in the long term, but there wasn’t anything preventing us from starting,” Campbell said. “We need a watering system. We come in on weekends and (during) breaks to water. We need new fans because the fans we have are just too small.”
Shull and Campbell raise enough lettuce for lunches every other week and are experimenting with cilantro, basil, tomato and kale.
Shull said she has always had a garden and would like to have it as a career. She spent last summer learning on a farm.
“I worked in a greenhouse, worked outside, and milked cows as well as working with chickens,” she said. “I loved it.”
Campbell said she plans to be a teacher but enjoys gardening. This summer she worked as an intern on the Homestead Organics farm and worked with Meals on Wheels.
“I’ve always enjoyed gardening and grew up with a garden,” she said. “My mom always stressed how important it was to know where your food comes from. I want to help people understand what goes into gardening and what comes out in your food. I think growing my own garden and having a greenhouse would be incredible.”
The duo wants other students know the joyful experience of gardening.
“We’ve partnered with our mentorship program,” Shull said. “We’ve hand-selected primary school and elementary students that may be interested in gardening. They help repot plants and learn about gardening. Our goal is to supply the lunchroom with all their lettuce, get the little kids over here and get them excited about growing what they eat. I think that’s important.”
Campbell and Shull mentor students in the greenhouse and in the science room, where they are studying a hydroponics system where fish give nutrients to the plants and the plants give oxygen to the fish.
“We are experimenting with the fish tank,” Shull said. “We have a piece of insulation and a grow-block in it with a seed and it grows like crazy. The kids helped us put it in and really enjoyed it. Those plants have grown amazingly, and so much faster than the plants in the greenhouse. We’re trying (experimenting) small scale, and if it works we want to bring another aquaponics system into the greenhouse.”
They plan to have starter plants available for the community to purchase this spring to get a head start on the growing season.
“Another goal for this spring is to have younger kids come and have community members teach classes, like maybe a canning class or somebody that makes fish tacos and can use the cilantro from our greenhouse in the meal. That way, the kids get introduced to the things you can use by planting and growing your own food,” Campbell said.
“We need to get other kids involved and younger kids need to take over,’’ she said. “I’d love to see the greenhouse class remain student-driven. It is a work in progress that is working really well.”