Feeding Minds, the Soil, and the Hungry

By Eve Pranis

When students at the Farnsworth Middle School set out to start a garden, they examined the origins of our food and the agricultural system that produces it. "The students were concerned about the negative aspects of chemical-dependent agriculture, but determined to build a garden large enough to feed hundreds of people," says garden coordinator Mark Warford. The upshot? A 3/4-acre garden that features organic methods for "feeding" the soil, managing insect pests, and controlling weeds.

Rotating Veggies

The school's eight 45'x45' plots generally host different families of plants. For instance, one area contains members of the nightshade family: tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants. Every year, the crops rotate into new plots, so each plant family or group occupies a certain section only once every three to four years. With this system, disease and pest problems associated with certain plants are less likely to get a foothold since things are always on the move.

"We base our decisions about how to organize the rotation and what to mix in each plot on several factors," explains Mark. For instance, crops that require a lot of nitrogen, such as corn or pumpkins, are typically followed by those that are considered "light feeders", like peas or onions. The gardeners also try to stagger root crops and leafy vegetables because their nutrient needs vary. Plants with small seeds that can be easily overtaken by weeds, such as carrots, follow larger crops, such as potatoes, that form a canopy and keep down weed growth.

Other Earth-friendly Techniques

Mark's students have discovered a host of other environmentally friendly approaches to maintaining a thriving garden. For instance, they plant cover crops such as clover or rye grass to cover bare soil. These "green manures" protect precious soil from erosion and, when turned back into the soil, add nutrient-rich organic matter. "Compost is one of the oldest and best soil additives, so we use a lot of it," says Mark. But his students haven't just relied on the tried and true. They've also had success with newer approaches, such as covering seedlings with lightweight fabric row covers. These let sun and rain in, but keep insects out. "We also stress conserving water and using renewable energy resources," explains Mark. To that end, they've set up a low-pressure drip irrigation system and used recycled plastic lumber to build raised beds, since it doesn't degrade or release harmful chemicals.

Spreading the Word

"Each day during the summer, students set up display boards explaining how organic agriculture meets plant needs without environmental and health risks," says Mark. As they conduct tours for community members, students challenge visitors to look at how the choices they make every day, such as the food they buy and energy they use, affect the environment. At the school's student-run farmer's market, visitors sample and purchase fresh organic vegetables. The income adds to the garden project's coffers, but it reflects just a fraction of the harvest. Students achieve their goal of feeding hundreds by donating the other 2,500 pounds of food harvested each year to soup kitchens and food pantries.

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