I arrived early at Ashley Ridge High School in Summerville and sat with 20 students while the teacher, Ben Gibson, gave instructions.
Unlike most high school classrooms, this one has bags of potting soil, racks of grow lights and an irrigation sprinkler hanging from the bulletin board. Gibson was discussing the upcoming fundraisers and Future Farmers of America events.
Until recently, horticulture has not been widely taught at the high school level in the Lowcountry. Today, there are several rapidly growing programs such as Ashley Ridge. In the past decade, the Lowcountry has seen a resurgence of local vegetable farming, farmers markets and Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) programs, thanks to organizations such as Lowcountry Local First (www.lowcountrylocalfirst.org), Growfood Carolina (growfoodcarolina.com) and Limehouse Produce (www.limehouseproduce.com). This enthusiasm has trickled all the way down to the elementary schools.
The horticulture program at Ashley Ridge began three years ago when Bobby Behr began growing vegetables on a small plot that was maintained by a group of students, mainly ones serving in-school suspension.
It didn't take long for students to recognize that working outside wasn't much of a punishment. The program's popularity began to take off.
Behr is now working to help other schools launch their own horticulture programs. To do so, Ashley Ridge hired Gibson as a full-time horticulture instructor two years ago.
During Gibson's first year, the horticulture program started with about 80 students. He and Behr established Good Agricultural Practices (GAP) certification so they could begin using their produce in the school cafeteria. They typically contribute lettuce, cabbage and broccoli. This year, the horticulture program started with 120 students. Next year, they expect that number to be closer to 150 students.
Once Gibson was done with morning announcements, I followed the class out to the greenhouse that was filled with flats of vegetables and hanging pots. He estimated there were more than 5,000 plants in the greenhouse, all of them seeded and grown by the students.
Many of the plants would be used to raise funds to support student activities and the horticulture program. In fact, while I was in the classroom, he spoke to students about volunteering at a fundraiser in the Flowertown Festival.
"Thanks to a variety of projects, the program is nearly financially self-sufficient," Gibson said proudly.
While I browsed the greenhouse, Gibson directed the students gathered around a large pot of boiled peanuts. They had acquired and prepared the peanuts and were now working with a leadership class to raise funds to aid a family that recently lost their house to a fire.
The horticulture program has one greenhouse and two unheated high-tunnel structures. They work on about an acre of land, but that's about to change.
The school soon will be expanding the building. When the trees are cleared, Gibson's program will have approximately 10 acres to grow potatoes, turnips, kale, mustards, kohlrabi and lettuce, in addition to an indoor potting lab.
The horticulture program plans to expand its curriculum to include wildlife and add another full-time instructor.
Gibson was happy to answer questions while keeping students on task. The big difference between his first and second year of teaching, he said, "is the number of students truly interested in horticulture."
The students participate in every aspect of horticulture, from seeding to harvesting as well as repairing irrigation and building raised beds. I noticed the hardest-working group of students was mostly wearing camouflage clothing. Gibson says that if he sees a student in the hall wearing a camouflage jacket, he or she is a student of his. Or will be.
Broccoli and cabbage were growing in the high-tunnel structures. Some of these crops would be used in a couple of weeks for the newly established Ashley Ridge CSA.
With a CSA program, shareholders pay a fee at the beginning of the season and, in return, receive a portion of the weekly harvest.
Ashley Ridge's CSA has 25 shareholders that will reap the students' harvest. There are more than 30 active CSAs in the Lowcountry. You can find one at lowcountrylocalfirst.org/node/149.
Gibson and Behr's aspirations don't end at Ashley Ridge.
"Our goal is to put fresh produce in every school in Dorchester County," Gibson says.
They hope the Ashley Ridge program will set an example and help other schools establish their own gardens.
The horticulture students finally finished bagging the boiled peanuts to sell. Gibson repeatedly insisted they stop eating the profits.
He told me that he decided not to grow carrots this year because last time, they lost too many crops - not to voles or rabbits, but to students.
Perhaps he's discovered the secret to getting kids to eat vegetables.
Tony Bertauski is a horticulture instructor at Trident Technical College. To give feedback, email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.