FARMINGDALE — Students at Hall-Dale middle and high schools will literally be digging into their newest hands-on learning experience.

A garden is being built at the campus by students and faculty, spearheaded by science teacher Jeff Cleaveland, who oversees the school’s Environmental Club. He said the garden will provide students a place to learn and relax. Meanwhile, Maine School Garden Network officials said gardens can help students learn in a non-traditional setting and supplement a number of subjects.

Jeff Cleaveland talks about the school garden May 9 at Hall-Dale Middle and High School in Farmingdale. Kennebec Journal photo by Joe Phelan

The front section of the area includes a pollinator garden and a Japanese stone garden, which is more commonly known as a zen garden. The sides of the zen garden are raised and styled like a bench to encourage students to sit.  The middle third of the garden will be made up of raised beds, and the back portion will be a “food forest” — a relatively low-maintenance gardening style incorporating food-bearing vines, shrubs and trees.

The garden has grape vines, apple trees and blueberry bushes for fruit-bearing plants, and Cleaveland plans on planting tomatoes and some flowers in the future. He said the food will eventually make its way into the cafeteria, when the garden is better established. He said he plans to push back into the woods behind the garden and eventually create an outdoor classroom.

Sophomore Lauren Sylvester said the garden provides vital outdoor space, aside from athletic fields, for students and the opportunity for the cafeteria to serve homegrown organic food. She said the payoff of watching the garden bloom was the best part of her experience in the garden.

“I like being outside, and I think the outcome of a garden every summer is really cool and beautiful,” Sylvester, 16, said. “You get a sense of pride when it all comes together and looks great.”

Erika Verrier, Maine School Garden’s Network’s program director, said gardening is “a really dynamic opportunity” for students in Maine. She said Maine is seeing rampant growth — 40% growth compared to a national average of 2% — in recent years in “young farmers.”

The network provides support and resources to schools trying to start gardens, along with suggesting curriculum options and professional development for school staff involved in the garden. She said the latest survey, taken five years ago, indicated that there were 130 school gardens in the state. The network is finishing up a survey to amend that number, which Verrier believes is higher now.

A number of central Maine schools have established gardens through the network, including Capital Area Technical Center, Augusta’s Farrington Elementary School, Augusta’s Sylvio J. Gilbert Elementary School, Belgrade Central School, Gardiner Regional Middle School, Gardiner Area High School, Readfield’s Maranacook Community High School and Waterville’s Albert S. Hall School.

Verrier, a Unity College graduate, said school gardens are usually funded by grants and other fundraisers, like selling saplings and seeds. These fundraisers, she said, involve other subject areas, like visual arts to make the packaging and math to weigh products and do business calculations. She added that it can also reinforce healthy eating habits through interaction with food.

The raised bed that will become a Zen garden at Hall-Dale Middle and High School in Farmingdale, seen May 9. Kennebec Journal photo by Joe Phelan

“Even if the child in the garden isn’t going to be the next potato farmer … they are growing an appreciation for their food,” she said. “I just find so many ways people enjoy gardening.

“I think it can add and enrich a culture at a school.”

Hall-Dale’s garden was funded in part by donations and by a $3,000 grant in 2016 from Maine Agriculture in the Classroom, a group separate from — but collaborates with — the Maine School Garden Network.

On a recent day after school, three students, Cleaveland and fellow teacher Naoto Kobayashi were working on putting compost down in the pollinator garden. Cleaveland said the zen garden and pollinator garden would be finished this spring.

Cleaveland said donations of seeds and compost have helped spark the garden’s construction, but some carpentry work and planting still needs to be done. The post-and-beam entry to the garden was built by students during “applied learning” projects.

The garden lot, which is just behind the track and softball field, was cleared by students and volunteers during the school’s Day of Caring. Since it was cleared, the garden has been cobbled together on weekends and after school hours by students and faculty. Cleaveland said he doesn’t want to move too quickly on the project so students can have ownership of different aspects as they rotate through the school.

A timber frame gate at the entrance to the school garden at Hall-Dale Middle and High School in Farmingdale, seen May 9. Kennebec Journal photo by Joe Phelan

Verrier said garden programs can also help children who don’t learn best in classroom settings, referencing “nature deficit disorder,” a non-medical term coined to describe the effects of not being outdoors enough may be having on children’s behavior. She also said some research has suggested outdoor learning could increase test scores.

“There’s a huge awareness now about nature deficit disorder and … different types of learning styles,” Verrier said. “When you take (some students struggling in school) outside, they really thrive.”

While educational institutions rely on the use of technology like tablets and laptops, Cleaveland said the “pendulum” is beginning to swing back toward hands-on projects, something he said students are interested in.

“We buy into one thing, and the pendulum swings heavily in that direction,” he said. “We know there is a desire (for projects like the garden).”

Hall-Dale High School Assistant Principal Doug Bourget said the school’s faculty invests time and energy to push for opportunities in applied learning to engage in “meaningful” learning opportunities that students remember.

“Opportunities such as helping build our garden gives students the opportunity to get involved and apply their learning,” he said. “The experience of getting directly involved helps students overcome obstacles and make the learning memorable.”

Bourget said applied learning exercises often involve “unintended problems” that give students a valuable chance to tackle issues in real time.

Cleaveland said there are no finite plans to include Hall-Dale’s garden into the curriculum, but new science standards that push for hands-on learning could see the garden used during class time.

“I don’t want to call it a space for a class; I want to call it a place to learn,” he said. “If we have this as a place, and they can enjoy it on multiple levels, that’s what we are looking for.”


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