Students and teachers work at the Whitefield Elementary School greenhouse on Thursday. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal Buy this Photo

WHITEFIELD — Behind Whitefield Elementary School on Thursday, students could be seen tending the gardens, putting homemade label signs into the dirt of the plants and harvesting lettuce from inside the greenhouse.

The students were making last-minute preparations for a plant and seed sale, taking place Friday and Saturday. The students, along with Whitefield teachers Karen McCormick and Tim Davis, spent most of the week preparing and making sure plants were ready to be sold.

“I would say all the kids enjoy it,” McCormick said as the kids around her worked contently, knowing exactly what to do with the tasks at hand.

When she took the students outside at the start of class, McCormick outlined the tasks and let them choose what they wanted to do. The seventh graders were split into groups. Some used their computers to make informational plant labels, while others help McCormick move seedlings around the school’s greenhouse.

Most of the plants at Whitefield Elementary are grown using aquaponics, a project that started with a behavioral program at the school. McCormick, a middle school science teacher, and Davis, an ed tech and bus driver that has been involved with agriculture for three decades, took it over about a year ago.

Tilapia swim in their tank Thursday at the Whitefield Elementary School greenhouse. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal Buy this Photo

Inside the greenhouse, a large white tank holds the fish. Once they are fed, they produce bacteria in their waste, which is then filtered into two larger fish tanks and then into a garden bed. The bed, which is currently growing lettuce, has grown “spicy” peppers at students’ request in the past, according to Davis.

The benefit of aquaponic gardening, McCormick said, is eliminating the use of chemicals.

“You’re not putting chemicals on it, you’re not really using medical grow, you’re using all-natural stuff from the fish,” she said. “It’s very good, its very fresh.”

The lettuce takes about a week to harvest, a task with which students are able to help.

The lettuce takes about a week to harvest and students are able to partake in the activity. Student Khloe Luce, who has harvested lettuce, said its “pretty good.” Two other students working with her agreed, saying they harvest lettuce “quite often.”

Khloe Luce, left, harvests lettuce as Tim Davis watches Thursday at the Whitefield Elementary School greenhouse. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal Buy this Photo

Davis said the students enjoy eating what they grow and it has encouraged some students to try new foods. He said he was able to get the students to try pesto, using the basil grown in the garden. The garden’s surplus is given to either the kitchen at school, or Sheepscot General Store to be sold to the community. Davis said the kitchen uses the summer squash and lettuce regularly.

“We try to harvest what they (the students) want,” he said. “Last year, someone wanted a ‘salsa’ garden so we grew tomatoes, cilantro and peppers.”

In addition to lessons about gardening and plants, students have built-in math lessons; for example, on Thursday McCormick asked students how many plants are in the packs they were preparing for sale. She said the students’ first lesson at the beginning of the year is related to aquaponics and the science behind how the fish help the plants grow.

The greenhouse at the Whitefield Elementary School. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal Buy this Photo

The coronavirus hasn’t impacted their program too much, McCormick said, but if one class has to quarantine, the other classes have to pick up on their garden responsibilities. The seventh grade class this week has had to be out in the garden every day this week because the other two grades are quarantining, she said.

“It’s more of a responsibility because the students have to put the water in the fish tank and have to do a huge part of that,” McCormick said. “I think the kids love it and they do a lot more than you would expect kids at their age to do.”

McCormick is hoping to purchase another greenhouse with the funds raised by plant sales, so growing can continue all year long. In addition to the one greenhouse, the school also has a 60-feet by 100-feet garden bed in which Davis plans to grow pumpkins and corn. He said that is his next project after the sale.

The sale, which also took place Friday afternoon, continues from 9 a.m. to noon Saturday at the Whitefield Elementary School greenhouse. Several varieties of seeds — including tomatoes, summer squash, corn and herbs, such as dill — and plants are being sold.


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