photograph by Marci Lambert
At White Station High, there’s a rush of spring planting going on in the school garden behind the cafeteria. Students splash water on blueberry bushes and build a compost pile. The Spartan Garden is a co-op in every sense of the word, where students tend, harvest, and share fresh produce.
Margaret Haltom is the city kid who started the garden last spring. She sweeps through the garden, finding a pea plant that needs tending. “We spend forever trying to make things grow, and that gives you a deeper appreciation for things you take for granted.”
The growers share produce at school-wide events and toast harvests with salad parties and herb giveaways. The Spartan Garden is named for the school’s mascot, though it’s a funny name for a plot that yields an abundance of produce, including snap peas, spinach, sunflowers, garlic, tomatoes, eggplants, and cucumbers.
Ten raised beds plus a spiral garden offer a closer look at the agricultural cycle. “Gardening changes your entire perception of how food is grown,” says Margaret. “We are reconnecting to how our food is grown and to our environment.”
Does being part of the process affect the taste buds? “Everything is really fresh when you pull it straight out of the ground,” exclaims senior Sam Kitterman, who worked with Haltom to create the garden.
It was a glimpse of purple peppers that launched the project. In fall 2012, Margaret was running with her cross-country teammates at Shelby Farms when she strayed from the path and noticed the peppers in the Shelby Farms Organic Demonstration Garden. Excited, she urged her team to check them out. A super garden, the runners agreed, then went back to practicing.
But for Margaret, an idea took root. She promptly contacted Shelby Farms, explaining that she wanted to learn about starting a garden at her school. Shelby Farms happened to be looking for a teen to lead its pilot Farm-to-Fork Fellowship, which connects youth to their food and seeks to cultivate the next generation of urban gardeners. “We make a good match,” Margaret says. The fellowship is based at the Greenline Gardens, a teaching garden located at the park, along with a 40-acre production garden.
As the first Farm-to-Fork Fellow, she has gained knowledge through hands-on work and taken it back to her high school. The fellowship comes with responsibilities: logging five to 20 hours a week in the gardens throughout the year. Margaret also serves as assistant garden teacher in after-school programs while writing a how-to handbook to help schools set up gardens of their own.
At White Station, she started the Garden Club, and began attracting kids willing to invest sweat equity. Then she applied for grants and raised $3,200 in donations from local businesses. Every Friday, Margaret sends a group text out to classmates: “Are you coming out to garden?” The prom queen, football players, star academics, all pitch in. “The garden offers a way to connect to very different types of people. It’s a melding ground for a diverse school,” says Margaret.
Growing organically presents challenges, but the teens have learned to problem-solve. “We’ve been figuring out what we can grow,” says Sam. Cardboard under beds controls weeds. The kids make a natural ant repellent from old tea, and collect water in rain barrels. Two master gardeners lend support.
Now in its second season, students are experimenting with a spiral herb garden.
Margaret and Sam leave for college next fall, but they’re determined to stay in touch with the upcoming crew, says Margaret. “We’ll interview students to take over the Garden Club next year. We want new students to feel like they’ve earned it and have ownership.”
In college, Margaret plans to study urban and environmental planning; Sam will major in urban planning. Call it the little garden that shaped a lot of futures.
HAVE A TEEN INTERESTED IN GARDENING?
Shelby Farms is now accepting applications for its Farm-to-Fork Fellowships. • AGE: Grades 9-12 JOB: Work 20 hrs./week June-July, & 4 hrs. a week September-May tending community gardens. Participants are paid. APPLY AT: Shelbyfarmspark.org/greenlinegardens