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By Melanie Warthman

Melanie Warthman. Photo by Mason Callejas

Last fall, students from Janis Bellavance’s class at Maricopa Wells Middle School decided to explore the world of vegetable gardening. Little did they know how much growth would really take place.

With guidance from a Maricopa Master Gardener and a 40-by-40-by-26-inch wooden crate, stabilized and delivered by Bellavance’s husband Brian, the class set out to plant their first-ever, raised-bed garden.

The crate was placed outside the classroom in an area allowing the most exposure to sunlight. Math immediately came into play as students determined how much soil was needed. They took measurements, calculated volume and decided to fill part of the box with empty plastic bottles and the remaining space with five bags of garden soil, roughly 18 inches deep. No irrigation lines were added as students did the watering.

The class worked together to plan and plant the bed. The square-foot method was followed using string and wooden skewers to mark off nine 12-by-12-inch squares. It allowed them to utilize space wisely and experience as many vegetables as possible.

Students learned there are two growing seasons – spring and fall – and researched what would do best in the fall. Leafy and root vegetables like the cooler temperatures and shorter growing season.

After much discussion and voting, into the garden went half-long and rainbow carrots, spinach, lettuce, radishes and multi-colored beets. Planting them was tricky because they only go in as deep as the diameter of the seed. Excited middle schoolers had a hard time with that concept but quickly understood what it meant when many seeds failed to germinate because they were planted too deep.

Broccoli was planted from a six-pack purchased from the garden center. One student insisted on green beans, though chances for success, when planted in fall, were slim. Pairs of students checked the garden daily, using a moisture meter to determine when to water, noting observations in a journal.

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Their perseverance and hard work produced a wonderful variety of fall veggies. Even the beans wintered over, due to the protection of the broccoli plants and covering the box when cold nighttime temps were expected. Succession planting allowed them to enjoy lettuce and carrots well into the spring when tomatoes and peppers were added to the garden.

Many students had never tasted these vegetables, let alone seen them grow.

Growth in the garden and the students was amazing. Those quiet in the classroom slowly blossomed, like their plants, as they worked outdoors in small groups. According to Mrs. Bellavance, “This gardening project was fun, purposeful and a real life-learning experience for my students. It was exciting to see their confidence and gardening skills grow.”

The class agreed it was a lot of work but well worth it for the yummy food harvested. As for the current school year… here we grow again!

Melanie Warthman is a member of Maricopa Master Gardeners.

This column appears in the September issue of InMaricopa.