The concept of farm-to-table really hits home for these students at Haverhill High School.
They plant vegetable and berry gardens each spring, harvest their crops to enjoy throughout the summer, then enter their bounty into the Topsfield Fair in the fall for judging.
Nancy Burke, a special education paraprofessional at the high school, launched the school's learning garden program in 2012 and has seen it grow each year.
About 75 students from several different special education programs are involved in the gardening program.
They grow some of their vegetable plants in their classrooms, and, coupled with donated plants, replant everything in wheelchair-accessible raised garden beds in one of the school's courtyards.
About 10 students in wheelchairs came out into the courtyard recently to plant their salsa garden with vegetables and herbs.
"Even though they are in wheelchairs, they have full access to the raised beds," Burke said. "The problem with most gardens is that they are in-ground, making it impossible for someone in a wheelchair to participate in planting. With our raised bed, all they have to do is reach in."
As part of the gardening program, Burke's students are also introduced to basic food preparation skills in the high school's life skills program, as well as math skills as they relate to measuring quantities, shopping for groceries and maintaining a food budget.
Student Julia McLaughlin, 17, said it is her second year in the spring planting program.
"I really look forward to this," she said. "Last summer we made fruit and vegetable salads as well as salsa, raspberry jam and blueberry muffins, all of which was delicious. And we're all here working together and helping each other."
For Burke, this year's spring planting was extra special.
She's been away from school for more than six months while being treated for breast cancer and recently returned to her classroom, eager to once again take a leading role in the planting. Although more cancer testing will take place, she is currently in remission.
"It was a big deal for the kids and a big deal for me as well," Burke said of them being reunited. "It's like returning back to life as I missed the kids and being at work all day. I'm not a person who likes to be away from what I love."
This was the seventh spring planting day since Burke launched her program, which has received recognition and awards from the National Education Association and the Massachusetts Teachers Association.
Students who attend the AIM and REACH, Multi Support or Life Skills programs replanted dozens of small plants, including tomatoes, hot peppers and cilantro in their salsa garden, as well as eggplant, beans, various types of squash, cabbage, and a giant pumpkin in other gardens.
They tried last year to grow a giant pumpkin, but it rotted on the vine after reaching more than 50 pounds. They're hoping for better luck this year with "Big Mac" seeds provided by the Charles Hart Seed Company of Connecticut, which also donated 1,000 packets of flower and vegetable seeds, Burke said.
Many of the vegetable plants in small pots were donated by parent Larry Trevette, who is a member of the school's site council, Burke said.
Members of the school's Junior ROTC program, led by Haverhill High junior and staff sergeant Erika Newvill, previously brought in eight tons of topsoil, which they loaded into the various garden beds and spread in the school's fruit orchard — which is part of Burke's program.
"It's amazing to see our plants grow," said Angel Paquette-Dolfe, 17, who has taken part in several past planting and harvesting days. "We all love to eat what we grow."
Several students who gathered around their raised berry garden, dug into the soil with spades to plant strawberries.
"I love gardening," said Jannelle DiVincenzo, 17. "We also care for and water our plants."
Special education teacher Hajime Okuda was directing the planting at another raised bed, where students were transplanting eggplant.
"We have carrots still growing indoors, and we're waiting to bring them outside," Okuda said. "Our lovely New England weather has been unpredictable."
He said his students will also be planting potatoes in growing sacks, just like they did last year.
Special education teacher Jason Burns said there is great value to this program, as it gives students an opportunity to succeed at something they love doing.
"Experience-based learning is really good for our students," he said.
Sophomore Desiree Modugno, incoming president of the high school's Garden Club, said her club formed during the last school year, but didn't become an official club until this school year.
"I'm really happy and proud of being able to help Nancy's students," Desiree said. "As a club, our goal is to revitalize an unused courtyard, one of three courtyards we have at the school."
She said courtyard C contains the vegetable and berry gardens, courtyard K contains a fruit orchard, while courtyard M has remained unused.
"That's the one we plan to work on," Desiree said.
Last year was the fourth year Burke's students entered their vegetables into the Topsfield Fair in the children's category, special needs school garden. They've won ribbons each year for their vegetables and art posters and plan to enter their vegetables and artwork again this fall.