Project Green Inspires Students to Think Globally

NJEA grant will help environmental club create garden and outdoor classroom.

Members of the environmental club hope the seeds and saplings they plant will provide shade and sustenance for years to come and inspire future generations of students to continue this stewardship.

A recent $10,000 grant will help them create a permanent courtyard garden and an outdoor classroom.

Project Green began last year with classroom discussions about sustainability and soil depletion caused by conventional agriculture. 

“A lot of them got scared,” biology teacher and club advisor Gretchen Contreras said. “We talked about resource depletion, which you don’t hear about it in the mainstream media. They asked, ‘What do we do now?’”

After learning how to grow potatoes in a lab, some students wanted to start a garden on the school grounds, and Project Green was born. 

Contreras was joined by teachers William Witherill, Graham Hielwell, Teresa Sullivan, Sherry Klein and Denise Stoby in obtaining a $10,000 New Jersey Education Association Frederick L. Hipp Foundation for Excellence in Education grant for the project. 

The grant includes funds for the student-run transition garden and an outdoor classroom with a roof. Walls made out cob, a mixture of mud, sand, clay and straw, will enclose the space.

At the groundbreaking ceremony June 8, students contributed their talents and skills, providing organic and locally-grown food, recycled art and music, a fashion show and a time capsule.

The group boasts about 50 members, but the Transition Garden will involve students in a variety of disciplines. Wood shop classes will work on solar dehydrators and benches, biology students will plant in the spring and harvest in the fall, and culinary arts students will utilize food grown in the garden.

Biology and history also intertwine in the garden, as a colonial plant section will include plants native to the area.

“The real ‘meat’ of the project is the food forest, which will not need much maintenance,” Contreras said.  This includes fruit and nut trees, and other perennials.

The student-devised plan must be approved by the borough and obtain approvals from the fire inspector before moving ahead, but the group hopes to do some plantings this summer, Contreras said.

Other Project Green initiatives have included volunteering at the Live Wire Society thrift shop at the First Baptist Church and recycling efforts at the school to keep electronic items like cell phones out of landfills. An environmental rally by students in December 2011 near the Hightstown Public Library also resulted in conversations with about 40 members in the community.

Produce grown in the garden can be sold at the Hightstown Farmers Market on Fridays and donated to local food banks, keeping students closely linked with their community, Contreras said.

Samantha Gleich, 17, of East Windsor, got started with the group planting flowers and learning to grow potatoes. She will soon work on planting the central hazelnut tree for the food forest.

Now a junior, Gleich described her biology teacher, Contreras, as “one of the most inspirational people I’ve ever met” for opening her eyes to environmental issues.

“I’ve learned that we really need to remove our dependency on fossil fuels and find alternatives,” said Alex Jarama, 16, a junior from East Windsor. He helped run the groundbreaking festivities and looks forward to the first plantings.

“I’m glad summer’s here so we can get started,” he said.

Rebecca Connolly, 17, of East Windsor is finishing her junior year and has been involved in the club since its inception. 

“Since I’m headed to college, this has pushed me toward environmental science and policy making, since I’m more aware of the different issues out there,” Connolly said.

Since the garden will hopefully be around for years to come, “I definitely want to come back and see how it turns out,” she said. 


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