Everyday is Earth Day with Gifft Hill School’s Education and Resiliency Through Horticulture program. Gifft Hill School seventh graders, above with EARTH coordinator Sarah Haynes, learn the finer points of soil blocking as an alternative to using plastic pots in the school’s interdisciplinary program which is run in collaboration with Iowa State University.
Michael Palminteri shows off a recently harvested sweet potato.
Gifft Hilll School student Ty Massquoi sifts through Asian Squash seeds which were donated by Coral Bay Garden Center.
An exciting partnership between Iowa State University and the Gifft Hill School has students getting their hands dirty, while learning about sustainability, historical planting methods and more.
The school’s Education and Resiliency Through Horticulture (EARTH) program was launched several years ago as a partnership with ISU. Since then, the inter-disciplinary program has grown to incorporate elements of science, gardening, nutrition and history.
Each year, several ISU students complete semester-long internships while student teaching at GHS and work hands-on with students in several grades. This year ISU student Paul Beamer has been working with GHS students on a variety of projects under the direction of EARTH coordinator Sarah Haynes.
Beamer, who is scheduled to help with GHS’ EARTH program through December, is a senior in ISU’s horticulture program and last week he helped seventh graders understand and develop a mound approach to gardening.
“Taino people used canuco farming which is a system of building mounds,” said Beamer. “You build up a mound and plant your seeds in it and basically leave it alone. Then you come back and harvest your food.”
“It’s a very hands-off approach to farming,” he said. “It’s an easy way of growing root vegetables.”
Earlier EARTH program students have carved out a garden area behind GHS’ Upper Campus, which is now home to a painted outdoor classroom where passionfruit vines grow up a trellis creating cooling shade.
Nearby a steep hillside is now home to terraces where different types of gardens are growing in several different levels.
One area is home to medicinal plants like aloe, while a second finds historic crops growing like taro, which were developed in conjunction with GHS history and science classes. The newest area in the terrace garden will feature the canuco garden.
“Our goal is to have the cassava grow tall and then we’ll plant squash which will grow up onto the cassava,” Haynes told the EARTH students. “This is called companion planting, where you plant different vegetables interspersed with each other instead of planting all of one thing. This also helps to not deplete the soil as quickly.”
As the seventh graders took a close look at a cassava root and discussed the nitrogen level of the soil, Haynes split the students into two groups.
One group of seventh graders helped sift rocks out of a pile of soil in order to create a mound for their canuco garden area, getting ready to plant cassava starters.
“We’re going to plant cassava and also experiment with potatoes” said Beamer.
The second group of students were busy learning the ins and outs of soil blocking as an alternative to using plastic pots or cups for seed starters.
Although the sun was bright and the temperature was in the high-80s, the GHS seventh grades relished their time in the garden.
“I like this class because I like getting outside instead of spending the entire day inside,” said Michael Palminteri.
“A lot of times we eat what we grow and it’s good to know that we’re eating something that we planted and grew ourselves,” said Sam Wessinger.
“We get to garden and not only at school, but at home too,” said Ty Massaquoi. “I’ve been helping my mom garden at home and that has been a lot of fun.”
In addition to the gardening aspect of the EARTH program, students have also been learning ways to collect and use water sources at GHS.
Haynes pointed out a catchment system — devised and built by students — which collects water from the school’s air conditioning units. The water is collected in a barrel and gravity fed to water the EARTH garden.
“We are using pretty much all of the water from the air conditioning system and we’re able to water our plants without having to use a lot of fresh water which is a valuable resource here,” said Haynes.
Students in sixth, seventh and eighth grades have the EARTH program integrated directly into their curriculum. After last week’s farming, seventh graders will study health and nutrition in a collaboration with the University of the Virgin Islands.
Before cleaning up for the day, several students plucked fresh sweet potatoes from the garden, which were slated to be cooked up by GHS senior Culinary Arts class.