For many of the special needs students attending a summer program at Haverhill High School, planting, tending to and harvesting a garden would normally be a difficult, if not impossible, task. With handicap-accessible raised garden beds and help from their teachers, however, students in the program have earned their green thumbs while enjoying the fruits of their labor.

"We've been picking fruits and veggies and cooking with them," said Nancy Burke, an education support professional in a Multiple Support Program attended this summer by about 20 students. "We've made pasta salad, blueberry muffins and strawberry shortcake, and we sliced tomatoes for sandwiches. The garden is doing wonderfully and everything is growing like crazy."

The garden was started last year using funds from a grant Burke applied for through the Massachusetts Teachers Association's Farm to School program and the National Educational Association. The program is part of a larger initiative aimed at connecting local farms with professionals like Burke, to put fresh fruits and vegetables on the plates of Massachusetts public school students. Burke received an additional grant this year.

"They have been using our program as a pilot program to promote the Farm to School program and for children to learn healthy eating throughout the country," Burke said.

Burke designed a fully handicap-accessible garden, with wheelchair ramps and raised beds built by Haverhill High students who were Eagle Scout candidates, along with members of two local Boy Scout troops.

The design of the garden allows students in wheelchairs and walkers to get right up close to the raised beds, where they can get their hands dirty by digging and planting.

As the gardens grow, the plants are fairly easy to reach for harvesting the vegetables and berries.

The three raised-garden beds are located in an enclosed courtyard in the C-wing of the high school.

A stew garden includes onions, carrots and potatoes. The salsa garden overflows with green peppers, hot peppers, tomatoes and herbs such as cilantro. A new "berry" garden contains dwarf, thornless raspberry bushes, dwarf blueberry bushes and strawberries, as well as pumpkin plants.

"Blueberries are my favorite," said 15-year-old Jared Howland during a recent harvesting of the berry garden.

His classmate, 17-year-old Jacob MacMillan, said he prefers raspberries.

"I do gardening at home," said Jacob, whose parents operate Cottage Gardens on Amesbury Road.

Burke said that for many of her students, gardening would be impossible to do because they use wheelchairs and walkers and physically cannot reach the ground.

"I wanted them to be able to get outside in a hands-on outdoor learning environment," Burke said.

The garden caught the attention of Anna Pasquerella, co-chairwoman of the Haverhill Garden Club's Garden of the Month Program, and program Chairwoman Jean Kostojohn. The two stopped by the high school recently to see the garden and chat with students, whom they presented with a certificate of appreciation.

"Our Garden of the Month program is for homeowners, but this deserved recognition for bringing children into gardening," Kostojohn said. "I'm sure their families are thrilled with the program.""This is very impressive," Pasquerella told students and staff.

"The children love to come to the garden and love to be outside," Burke said. "We sit and talk about gardening and healthy eating and where our food comes from."

Amanda Huberdeau, a teacher in the program, said gardening helps improve motor skills, as well as social skills, and also teaches students where their food comes from.

"We use what we grow in cooking classes, which also teaches students the use of appropriate tools for cooking," Huberdeau said.

Burke said her future plans are to build an outdoor classroom were students and staff can learn about the environment, water cycles and gardening. 

"The students have planted many varieties of potatoes, carrots and onions and the plan is to submit some of these vegetables as a display at the Topsfield Fair this fall," Burke said. 

"With in the salsa garden, I wish to continue growing more herbs and spices," Burke said.


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