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Nashua Telegraph

July 13th, 2017

Back-to-school season came early for some at Amherst Street Elementary School on Tuesday as staff members and other volunteers worked to transform the school’s tired, but loved, courtyard into what they hope will be a thriving and engaging garden.

The effort is the latest from GrowNashua, a nonprofit organization that focuses on developing small-plot gardens in areas that typically wouldn’t be associated with agriculture, and to provide education and encouragement to people who may not have the background or means to make the gardens thrive.

Several soaked but engaged volunteers grubbed, raked and weeded their way through the central courtyard during Tuesday morning’s rain, busily preparing the existing beds for new plants and new learning experiences for the school’s students.

The area has served much in the same way as a suburban home’s backyard. Flowers and shrubs bloomed, but have become a bit overgrown, in a handful of beds that had sprouted enough weeds to fill several yard-waste bags.

“I just feel this is a great space and would be much more useful for the kids,” school secretary Melissa Weikle said as she worked.

The area has served as a gathering spot and general purpose open space for science class and quiet reading. It was even an occasional launching pad for butterflies released by the school’s intensive needs students.

“Right now, we feel it’s underused,” said Tammie Payette, a special educator with 11 years at the school. “This may increase the usage for all students.

“We’re hoping that part of this will allow the intensive needs students an opportunity to grow some herbs and learn some life cycles with flowers and plants. We often come out here because it is a safe space.”

The school’s garden team mission statement is “to create a gathering space that will enhance learning experiences on nutrition, healthy eating and life-cycles while simultaneously engaging parents in the school community. This hands on gardening experience will give students access to healthy food, get them active, and raise their awareness of the food system’s impact on their bodies.”

Justin Munroe, GrowNashua’s director, described how the space will take shape at first, with space for quick-growing beans and winding paths for kids to access the gardens, existing peace pole and eventually a sundial.

“Everybody wants to see something happen out here, but not everybody has time to come out here and do anything,” Weikle said. “Summer seemed like a good time for staff to come out and help.”

Cardboard boxes were disassembled and laid down on the ground, soaking up the rain. Rich soil was hauled in by wheelbarrow and spread on top. The cardboard will provide a new, natural weed barrier for a temporary cover crop of buckwheat, according to Munroe.

When students arrive for the next school year, the grass will easily be turned in to the soil and deteriorating cardboard and serve as a soil enhancer for the crops the kids will eventually grow themselves.

Smudged with soil and wet from the rain, Payette paused and said, “I feel invested in the school. When I first came here and my room overlooked it (the open space), I said to the then principal, ‘Hey, who takes care of the courtyard?’ “

She became a regular caretaker, coming in on the weekends to rake, weed and mow the grass.

Eventually it became time for her to “put it on hold a little bit; now this is happening,” Payette said. “This is awesome. I’m really looking forward to it.”

The work dovetails with the Nashua school system’s participation in the farm-to-school program, which aims to link local growers with local student consumers to provide nutrition along with real-world and local lessons on where their food comes from.

“With Amherst Street we have about a dozen teachers interested in participating,” Munroe said. “Their focus is to build more community engagement, where parents can be involved.”

A program through the University of New Hampshire Cooperative Extension and contributing seed companies provide seeds.

“In September, we’ll probably plant some short-season crops where they can have success with it,”Munroe said.

Eventually, he hopes to add berry bushes along one brick wall.

“A lot of different people are excited for different reasons,” Munroe said. The space will provide hands-on learning and “lets them let out some energy.”

“I think school gardens are very important to get kids reconnected to nature,” said Dave McConville, a permaculture designer from Nashua who was helping with the project, “reconnected to where their food comes from and (learn) that we need to treat the Earth with respect because it gives us everything we need to survive.”

For the students who will soon be at work in the renewed space, Munroe said, “The general awareness of where food comes from is very important. There are a ton of benefits.”

Don Himsel can be reached at 594-1249,

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