HARRISVILLE - Alcona students, teachers, and MSU Extension master gardener volunteers will double the size of Alcona's Community Garden from about 1,500 to about 3,000 square feet this year to enclose more planting space and a wider variety of plants in a larger fence.
After a handful of teachers and FFA students resurrected the discontinued garden project in 2010, it became a multi-purpose teaching tool for several classes and continues to grow every year. Master gardener volunteer Billie Thompson, one of the lead advisers and volunteers on the project, said the new space will make room for compost experiments, a deer-proof fence, and a lot more plants.
"They're going to double the size of it. They have an experiemental going on the compost; they have done different compost piles ... so the kids can find out why things don't work when things heat up in the compost piles; they have enough fencing to put around the new addition; and with them doubling in size, they can plan to put in the vermicastings that they're doing in the FFA. They will be side-dressing all the vegetables with that, because the soil needs a lot of work over there," she said. "One of the girls that was a senior in FFA wrote a grant last year and got the money for the fencing, the post, and everything, and I think they had some left over and that's what they're using this year."
Several teachers at Alcona Community Schools already have made use of the garden, including Renee Rose's special education class, Doreen Schick's fourth grade class, Hope Smith's 4-H group, and Brian Matchett's agriscience students, among others. Thompson said that list, like the garden, will continue to grow.
"A lot of the teachers are trying to figure out how to work this into the curriculum. The art class, there was talk about, with the butterfly garden that's going in front of the elementary school ... there would be flowers there that the art students could paint and draw in the fall; (math classes) were saying they could figure out how many cubic feet of mulch they would need to amend the garden; the wood shop is making wood boxes ... for some of the kids that have difficulty getting down, because of some challenges with their health, so (they're) putting higher raised beds in so those kids could have an opportunity to garden too," she said. "They're the ones that are taking the lead on it, the teachers and the kids, and master gardeners are there to help and assist and make it a success."
Actual work on the garden could be weeks or months away, but plans are already in place for where to put about 70 trees and shrubs donated last year by the Alcona Conservation District for placement around the school campus, which currently occupy the outskirts of the garden. Students and teachers also have started seed taping a special method of marking toilet paper to measure proper distances between seeds. The garden's produce sometimes goes to the local farmer's market, and sometimes to the students; Thompson said teachers were impressed by the kids' appetites for vegetables they had tended and picked themselves.
"They didn't have a way to get some of these fresh vegetables, and it's so different from buying this stuff in a store. When it's fresh out of the garden, it's crisp, it has all the flavors in it, and it has all the vitamins and minerals that the kids need," she said. "That was why Paula Welling, the nurse at Alcona Health Center, was so excited about it, because she could show the kids something that's fresh and it tastes really good. It's totally different than the iceberg lettuce that you get at the store that's just crunchy and wet and doesn't have a lot of flavor to it."
The garden fell into disuse once, but it will not happen again very soon. A weed barrier fabric will keep weeds at bay, weekly maintenance volunteers and succession planting will keep the garden in bloom through the summer, and Thompson said she's chomping at the bit to get back to work on it.
"(My husband and I) will be doing the big tilling for the new portion. We can break ground as soon as we have dryness and snow gone and frost out of the ground. Those are the three major things ... and then once it's tilled, then they can go ahead and put the fence around," she said. "Last year was a learning curve for the students, and the teachers too, so this year they're going in a little more prepared for what they need to have."
Andrew Westrope can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 358-5693.