Service by the square foot

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When Friends Academy Middle School English teacher Steve Walach talks about the work he does in the school’s community garden, he spews numbers:

• 475 pounds of tomatoes harvested this year

• 285-day maturity cycle for winter carrots

• 1 square foot of garden real estate yields one pound of winter carrots and two pounds of summer carrots

• 5,000 pounds of produce will be harvested from the garden this year (compared with 4,497 pounds in 2010, the best of years past)

• More than 500 pounds of Portuguese kale have been harvested for area soup kitchens so far this year….

Clearly, to be capable of producing the kind of yield that is coaxed from 1,900 square feet of bed space each season, one needs to be mindful of the numbers.  But for Mr. Walach and his band of harvesting helpers, that is only part of the story.

Current students, faculty, parents, past parents and alumni have given their time and expertise to help build a legendary garden filled with 10-foot sunflowers, and multi-varieties of cabbage, cauliflower, kale, tomatoes, squash, rutabaga, peppers, lettuce, onions, and anything else you can add to a pot of boiling water.

When all is said and done, the school’s vegetable garden helps to feed its neighbors through weekly harvests of vegetables that are delivered to the Grace Church Food Pantry of New Bedford, and to soup kitchens and food pantries in Pawtucket.

Bugs, blight and bok choi

Last fall, student volunteers battled a tomato blight that arrived in mid-August, and was probably caused by the extra mild winter of 2012. “The beds really took a beating,” Mr. Wallach says, “and although we harvested 475 pounds of tomatoes, we should have had 200 pounds more.”

Students pulled out the blighted plants by hand and then used broad forks to aerate the soil. The plants were not composted as usual, but instead sent off to the landfill where the offending fungus was likely to have been killed off, given the cold conditions of last winter.

Organic gardens are subject to all kinds of natural challenges, so Mr. Walach and his team learn about and practice crop rotation, and feed the soil with a careful and ever-evolving blend of organically-approved nutrients.

The key to increasing yield, it seems, is the continued practice of using one wheelbarrow load of compost (approximately 5 cubic feet) per crop, per bed. The gardeners also add greensand for potassium, blood meal for nitrogen, and alfalfa meal for nitrogen and potassium, with every planting.

If you really are serious about this stuff, you will also want to know that they have recently begun using “a slurry made from soft rock phosphate — approximately six diluted quarts per bed, per planting — drenched and then sprayed with a special mix of compost tea.” Perhaps this explains why the garden’s yield ratios easily keep pace or exceed those of area growers.

Work in the garden happens over a ten-month cycle, from February to mid-December. The student labor pool comes from a variety of sources. Groups of student volunteers sign up for three-month stints via the school’s Service-Learning program, forming the backbone of the operation.

Mr. Walach also works with sixth-graders, as part of their health curriculum. These dedicated 10 and 11-year-olds plant, weed and harvest from September to December, sifting and loading wheelbarrows of compost and organic nutrients, and witnessing the growth cycle in reverse, beginning with the harvest in September October and November, and moving into bed preparation for the following season.  In the spring, the season begins anew with the seeding of onions and lettuces as early as February.

“A sixth-grader’s journey through the school year parallels the 285-day life cycle of a carrot!” says Mr. Walach.

The walls in and around Mr. Walach’s classroom are papered with thank you letters from area food pantries and soup kitchens. “My grandfather raised eight kids on nine dollars a week, as a laborer in a Rhode Island textile mill during the Depression.  His large garden played a big role in feeding the family,” Steve Walach recounts in answer to a question about the evolution of his passion for growing.

He has taken the garden, begun in 2006 to educate students about the importance of locally grown food sources and the sustainability of natural resources, and has grown it into a reliable source of fresh vegetables for local food pantries.  “The garden provides us with an evolving opportunity to teach and demonstrate lessons in ecology, eco-literacy, and community service to young people,” he says.

Vegetables grown in the Friends Academy garden:

Bok Choi

Beets

Cabbage – red and green

Carrots

Cauliflower

Cukes

Eggplant

Garlic

Green Curly Kale

Iceberg Lettuce

Red leaf Lettuce

Romaine Lettuce

Onions

Pole Beans

Peppers

Portuguese kale

Red Chieftan Potatoes

Yellow Satina Potatoes

Rhubarb

Red Kale

Sugar Snap Peas

Spinach

Summer Squash

Zucchini

Tomatoes

Hakurei turnips

Macomber turnips

Rutabaga

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