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Not for Profit: Montessori Garden

Oct. 5, 2006 — Take four teenagers, a volunteer organic gardener, one determined young teacher and a more or less bare hillside and what do you have?
With tender care, you can have an amazing garden growing with imagination, hope and organic fertilizer.
"I had a fantasy this summer about the students growing their own garden," says Bridget Heersink, who teaches high school-age students in the upper school at the V.I. Montessori School. So Heersink approached Administrator Shournagh McWeeney.
"I went to Miss McWeeney soon after I got back," Heersink says, "and I asked her about creating an organic garden, and — well, you see what's happening."
It turned out Heersink's fantasy could not have been timed better; it was an idea whose time was ripe.
"It was so ironical that Bridget came to me," McWeeney says. "This summer I'd put some thoughts on paper, speaking in my heart of hearts, hoping to sort of sell that idea to the upper school. When we had our first meeting, and they started talking about gardening, I thought, 'Wow.' This is so important for the students to understand how it all works, to be self-sufficient and be able to produce something. It's exciting."
"Exciting" characterizes how the four upper-school students feel about the garden. Simi Pearl Edwards, Mohammed Hamed, Chardet Michael and Zachary Schulterbrandt are all ears and hands and elbow grease. They agree this is going to be a "fun" project.
The upper school occupies a building on a relatively steep hillside acquired earlier this year, which makes it challenging to create a garden. For starters, they have to terrace the hillside.
Heersink enlisted the services of her friend Clay Jones, an artist, rock-wall builder and person who marches to his own drummer. That drummer beats a rhythm for organic gardening.
"It literally changed my life," Jones says. "I love to volunteer, and I love the organic way of life. My philosophy is to protect the earth by not putting chemicals in it; that is unnatural."
He works to show Heersink's students other ways of doing things.
"It's important to give kids the idea that there is an alternative universe," Jones says. "It's important to connect with the earth, do things that don't damage the earth. Plants grown with chemicals don't behave normally; the chemicals wreck the plant's natural immune system."
Jones talked to the four students about protecting the earth and about the value in seeing something you have nurtured come to fruition.
"It's important to see the connection," he told them.
This week began the students' second adventure in gardening — the hard stuff. The week before they terraced and planted a tiny herb garden at the foot of the staircase to the school. Though small, it is meticulously planted — basil, thyme, parsley and rosemary — using the small space efficiently.
This week it's on to bigger and harder projects. Before tackling the hillside outside the classroom, Heersink gathered the students around a big table, where she poured many bags of seeds donated by Hamed, whose father owns Plaza Extra supermarket.
The choices enthrall the youngsters. "I want to grow the eggplant," says Michael, gazing at the bright purple vegetables on the package. "Look at these tomatoes!" says Schulterbrandt. "Where's the radishes?" Pearl-Edwards wants to know. Hamed, meanwhile, looks over the packets with an experienced eye, not yet selecting one.
"I've been gardening with my parents since I was in the third grade," he says.
"You have to be careful what you choose," Heersink cautions the students. "We must plant the ones that need direct sunlight together, and the same with those who need more shade."
Then comes the matter of insects. "Organic pest control uses regular detergent and water," Jones says as the students eye him skeptically. "Or a mixture of hot sauce and water in spray bottles."
After sorting out the preparations, the group members selects their tools — new shovels, hoes, rakes, machetes — and tromp outside.
Heersink gives a concerned look to Hamed, a tall 14 year old. "Have you had enough water today?" she asks. "Do you want to bring a bottle outside with you?" Hamed is observing Ramadan and cannot eat until sundown. He smiles. "I'm fine. I get up about 4 a.m. and eat and eat."
Once outside, Jones takes over. "First," he says, frowning at the hillside in front of him, "we have to get this ready. This tree will have to go." He indicates a Chinaberry tree midway up the hillside.
In what seems less than a blink, Hamed and Schulterbrandt, machetes in hand, topple the tree and pile up its remains — perhaps to be used for compost.
Heersink takes a walk around the rest of the available space, about one acre. "See, we have all this hillside," she says. Indicating the slope above, she adds, "Now, that's where we'll plant the corn. This is all potentially arable land, but — and it's a big one — we need to have an irrigation system."
Meanwhile, Jones instructs Michael and Pearl-Edwards in the art of rock-wall building.
"The art part," Jones says, "is in using what you have in front of you, rather than bringing in rocks. You try to build it as tight as possible," he says, placing an odd-shaped rock into a place that fits perfectly. "I think we will use the soil that's here for this."
Topsoil is not a luxury they can afford right now. The project needs donations.
"We need so much," Heersink says. "I am hoping people will want to help us spread the message about environmental awareness. We are learning so much, but we need help. We need organic soil, helping hands and an irrigation system, and anyone with knowledge and advice!"
On the other hand, Heersink expresses pleasure with the project thus far: "Everyone is really supportive and the kids have such spirit; they're wonderful kids."
Another new idea has joined gardening on Heersink's plate a cooking class. "We study foods in depth. We did olive oil and the history of olives. And, in a few months, we'll be able to cook what we grow."
But the garden takes money. Jones has had some small success to date in getting donations. "The people I've talked to have been great — small companies," Jones says, noting that Bryan's Plants and Garden Supplies and the Plant Depot and Garden Center have donated tomatoes, herbs and fertilizers. "Samantha at Virgin Ink, the tattoo shop, said she'll donate time, and Ellen Higgins has loaned us her truck."
Heersink bought the tools herself, she says, "just so we could get started."
To donate time, materials or money, call Heersink through the school at 775-6360 or Jones at 643-3499. Donations are tax deductible under Montessori School's not-for-profit status. The class meets Thursdays from 11 a.m. to noon.
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