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Virginia Graziani

Redwood Times

On a morning that started well below freezing, decorating every blade of grass, branch, and fence wire with tiny sparkling crystals, fifth-graders from Beginnings in Briceland rushed eagerly from their warm classroom to the school's greenhouse to find out how their lettuce, cabbage, spinach, and other greens had weathered the big freeze.

The greenhouse is the center of the gardening class led by fifth and sixth grade teacher Sean Andersen and Beginnings' gardeners, Matthew and Tara Brockmeyer, advisers to the class.

Back in the fall the 12 students prepared the soil and planted seeds, hoping to provide enough tasty and nutritious greens to brighten winter lunches for themselves and their schoolmates.

Now that the lettuces and salad greens are ready for harvest, with cabbage, and kale not far behind, the students are discovering the satisfaction of eating and sharing food that you grow yourself.

They are also learning about science, including the biology of plant cells, plant and animal life cycles, and how atoms and molecules connect and make key soil nutrients like nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium.

Students learn to keep careful records of everything from greenhouse temperatures to the size of their growing plants. They learn about research, and how to write good essays about related topics from their feelings about the garden to what it means to call foods "organic" and "GMO-free" and why those categories are important.

The weekly class begins with measurement. Different students take turns reading the lowest greenhouse temperature and the current temperature, as well as the humidity inside the greenhouse, from the digital meter. They also read and record the soil temperature at several different places, and estimate the soil moisture by seeing if it clumps or falls apart when they dig some up with their hands.

Last Tuesday, the greenhouse had dropped as low as 16 degrees Fahrenheit during the night, but by 9 a.m. with the sun shining brightly, the temperature had come up to a toasty 49.1 degrees F. Humidity inside the greenhouse was 86 percent, and soil temperature was right around 50 degrees F.

Andersen asked the students whether they should water the plants. The students agreed that it was not a good time to water because the soil was still somewhat moist and the temperature was so low. Water inside the plants' cells could freeze if it got cold enough, causing the cells to burst and kill the plants.

The students are especially proud of the worm bin, which was just completed this fall, thanks to a grant from Whole Kids/Americorps.

Inside the big, hinged wooden bin is a rich mix of compost for food and paper shreds for warmth, a cozy home for tens of thousands of red wigglers. The shreds come from "our homework," the students explained, and the compost comes from kitchen waste.

The worms also "recycle" what they eat, producing castings, or to put it less elegantly, worm poop, which is excellent fertilizer for the garden.

The students measured some of the worms - not as hard as it sounds because the worms were a bit sluggish from the cold. The longest one they found today was 14 centimeters (about three-and-a-half inches), but they said they've seen worms as long as five inches.

To start the worm bin, the class ordered 15,000 red wigglers from a worm supplier, and if all goes as planned, they hope the population will reach 60,000.

When the morning's harvest was done, the students had a huge box of greens for the kitchen, including several types of lettuce, spinach, parsley, and edible flowers, pansies and calendula, to make the salad more colorful and tangy.

Asked if they had gardens at home, most of the students said their families had big gardens, but they didn't work nearly as much in them as they do at school. "Home's a break," said one girl.

The Brockmeyers, who have been working at Beginnings for three years, completed the greenhouse in September 2012 with the help of many community members and the students themselves.

"They organized it," Andersen said, "and it's awesome for us that they did."

"This project could not have happened without the support of the community, both the local community and the larger community beyond," Matthew Brockmeyer told the Redwood Times in the email that invited us to visit.

"The greenhouse frame was donated by the Brockmeyer family, the lumber was donated by Parkinson's, the soil was donated by Hohstadt's, hoses and gardening tools were donated by Jim, plumbing and additional supplies were purchased with a grant from the Western Growers Foundation."

Many community volunteers and the students themselves pitched in to help build the greenhouse, Brockmeyer added. The Brockmeyers' son Roland, now in second grade at Beginnings, was a big help in all phases of the project.

The previous fifth grade's first project was growing plants from seed for Beginnings' plant sale in May 2013, an annual fundraiser. The fifth-graders helped the younger students to start their own seeds as well. Every class contributed at least two flats of plants to the sale.

"This year we want to take it up to a new level," Brockmeyer said.

Beginnings is seeking funding to develop more water storage so the school can operate the greenhouse all year, said Julia Anderson (no relation to teacher Sean Andersen), who describes her position at Beginnings as "operations manager."

Right now they are limited by the availability of water from Beginnings' source, Briceland Community Services District. During drier months everyone has to cut back on water use, so the greenhouse shuts down.

Anderson felt it was unlikely the school could develop its own water source, but an empty pond on the property behind the Skyfish pre-school building could be used for storage if it was lined, she said.

When we asked the students why it's good to grow their own food, they replied, "It's organic... non-GMO... it's not shipped from anywhere... it's free, sort of," but most of all, "It's fresh and yummy! It tastes good!"

REDWOOD TIMES PHOTOS BY VIRGINIA GRAZIANI

1. The fifth-grade gardeners at Beginnings in Briceland show off a variety of tasty greens from their greenhouse. At back are teacher Sean Andersen, left, and gardener/adviser Matthew Brockmeyer. Middle row, from left: gardener/adviser Tara Brockmeyer with new daughter Rosalie (in elf cap), Logan Smith, Bella Volz-Broughton, Vivian Noll, Ethan Kulchin, Angelo Criscione, Francesa Genolio, Hazel Baumstone. In front, kneeling, Byron Weston, and behind him, Ryan Willison. Also in the class but absent; Maxx Sherr, Isabella Sherr, and Sebastian Colon.

2. Students start their class in the greenhouse by recording the temperature and humidity of the air and the soil so they can make good decisions about what needs to be done to keep their plants thriving. At the end of class, they harvest vegetables, salad greens, and edible flowers for the school cafeteria.

3. Worms recycle kitchen waste into nutrient-rich fertilizer for the garden. Shredded schoolwork paper is added to the compost to keep the worms warm. When the new worm bin was completed this fall, it became the new home of 15,000 red wigglers, and may some day hold as many as 60,000 worms.