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When not on the computer, these kids are getting their hands dirty in the classroom learning about gardening from the ground up via a deceptively simple looking patented planter known as the EarthBox. Created over a decade ago by Blake Whisenant, an organic tomato farmer from Florida, the EarthBox, in partnership with the Growing Connection, has changed the way communities are growing food the world over.

"The EarthBox was born from excessive rain,” says Whisenant, whose crops suffered from a hurricane in 1992. “I told my wife, ‘Before I die, I’m going to make me a box to keep the plants safe.’ It took me five years, but I did it. I experimented with concrete, wood, anything you can imagine. Now we use a special plastic that won’t break down from ultraviolet light. It’s partially made from recyclable materials but soon it will be 100 percent. That’s the goal.”

With its special peat-based potting mix, mulch cover, and reduced need for water and fertilizer, the EarthBox is more than a planter that grows hearty tomatoes—it is a water-efficient, low-maintenance, high-producing growing system that allows for food production where space and arable land are limited. 

“Blake never realized what impact it can have on farmers around the world,” says Amy McMillen, Connecticut’s liaison to the Growing Connection [TGC]. Amy and FAO’s senior liaison, Robert Patterson, founded TGC eight years ago to address the causes of hunger and malnutrition around the world by helping people and communities build highly productive, space- and water-efficient vegetable gardens.

And today, from African villages to Haiti to the mountain communities of Mexico and even to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s garage roof garden, TGC’s popularity has spread to a150 project sites in eight countries. Barnard is one of six Connecticut elementary schools participating in the program.“It’s a doit- yourself program, not a classic garden program,” says Amy. “The schools come to us. We do not have a budget for this, which means the schools must pay their own way, so we need committed members.”

TGC began with the rise in internet use in rural communities— Robert and Amy saw the potential in the new technology and what it could mean for connecting children and schools to master gardeners, educators, and horticulturalists the world over. If a school has the internet, their ability to learn about growing food is limitless. Then they met Blake and the EarthBox soon became the common denominator for the program.

“People want to join our program because it connects them to an international community. The EarthBox is the communication constant,” says Amy. “It is a platform that affords students the ability to perform identical experiments whether you are in Ghana or New Haven.”

Judy Merriam’s second-grade students and other classes at Barnard are becoming very handy with web technology and are currently posting questions and comments as they experiment with the growing conditions of their plants. They are waiting for a response from their sister school, Mankessim Secondary Technical School in Ghana. The school lacks internet access but they do have a nearby internet café where every computer has a webcam. Soon kids will be able to see each other as well as communicate via email, Skype, and live chat. Judy says the EarthBox is useful because “there’s so many ways to integrate this into our curriculum.” At Barnard, where environmental studies are emphasized, one Earth- Box of kale plants can provide a myriad of explorations into science, water, light, and nutrition. Pre-K through 12th-grade standards-based curriculum support packages are offered by EarthBox, and teacher workshops are offered through the Growing Connection.

But even with the best curriculum and growing environments, the kids discovered that growing plants is not as easy as it looks. Judy’s second-graders were given the task of determining the amount of water kale plants needed to grow properly. The kids wrote on their blog: “We planted kale in our EarthBox. It started to grow. We gave it 1000 ml of water.” And then, in the next entry, the kids wrote despondently: “Our kale was eaten by worms!” Some pesky cabbage worms had devoured part of their hard-labored crop.

“Everything is a learning lesson,” says Amy. “When you have failure you are made aware of life’s challenges and you learn how to deal with it. That is why gardening is so important. You learn to allow room for failure, especially if you’re dependent on your garden for food. Farmers face failure on a daily basis and kids need to learn how to rise above it. The garden is a great neutralizer.”

But even in the face of failure, the kids wished the worms well. “Hopefully they enjoyed it!” Not only do worms enjoy eating kale, so do the students. Claire Criscuolo, chef and owner of New Haven’s Claire’s Corner Copia and Basta restaurants, comes to Barnard to teach cooking classes in its Green Wednesday after-school program. The kids cooked their remaining kale using thyme and oregano from the school garden along with tomatoes, chickpeas, garlic, and olive oil. It was a smash success.

Claire is one of New Haven’s biggest EarthBox fans. More than 40 of them sit alongside the arugula, mint, and cantaloupe in the garden at her East Haven beach house. In a good July they are teaming with Green Zebra, Brandywine, and Japanese Trifele heirloom tomatoes. “One box produces 30 to 50 pounds of tomatoes with just two plants! It’s incredible!”

But she is an even bigger fan of the Growing Connection, and has been instrumental in getting the program off the ground here. She met Bob Patterson at a Les Dames d’Escoffier International event in New York City a few years ago. He was walking an EarthBox around on a leash and told her his hope was that if kids from different nations were able to exchange recipes, they would be less apt to bomb one another.

Firmly believing in the healing powers of growing food, and wanting to connect kids to America’s gardening past, Claire knew she had to bring the organization to New Haven.

“That’s how I learned about food, from being in a garden. My grandmother had a garden. My mother had a garden. How do you make soup? How do you cook beans? You don’t normally learn those things in school. This knowledge has skipped a generation,” Claire explains. “We’ve missed out so much in the recent past that we need to reconnect with our food supply.”

Armed with determination, Claire brought TGC to the attention of officials at New Haven’s Livable City Initiative; they connected her to a few school principals who expressed interest. Claire promptly went out and got a $2,000 grant from the People’s United Bank. It covered the start-up costs for 10 EarthBoxes in two schools, Barnard and Benjamin Jepson.

Third-grade teacher Kelvin Youngs coordinates the Green Wednesday Garden Club at Barnard along with Judy Merriam, and is in charge of the EarthBoxes, often instructing teachers as well as students on how to put them together. One May afternoon a group of fifth-graders surrounded an EarthBox, spreading potting mix over the aeration screen that lies directly above the water reservoir. Kelvin instructed the kids to be sure to pack the soil into a corner groove that connects to the reservoir so the soil can act as a wick, drawing the water up through capillary action. This keeps the soil constantly moist, but not too moist; the plant takes only what it needs.

“Show me your fists! Press down!” Kelvin ordered. “This is how the pizza guy makes his dough.” Five pairs of hands pressed the soil firmly down over a generous portion of fertilizer. Some kids wrinkled their noses at the smell rising from a mixture of dehydrated manure, feathers, coconut shells, and other pungent stuff.

Kelvin held up a double-sided plastic cover that goes over the EarthBox like a hairnet. “Does this box get the black or a white side? What does the white side feel like, is it hot?” The kids shook their heads. “The white side doesn’t attract heat, so it’s good for cool-weather crops like we are planting, but the black side attracts the heat so we will use it when we plant our tomatoes, eggplant, and squash.”

All the kids eagerly began to plant the gloriously colored baby Swiss chard plants taken from the school’s greenhouse, six to a box. One student admitted he couldn’t wait to try this green-leafed vegetable and asked when Claire was coming to teach them how to cook it.

Kelvin understands the potential of the Growing Connection. “Barnard is in a special position to promote environmental education, which is great. I’m excited about the food component. You know, inner-city kids are so removed from their food, a lot of the food they eat gets passed through windows. So it’s critical what we are doing. It allows for a sharing experience between different kinds of people and cultures.”

“The Growing Connection is about much more than growing food,” says Claire. “It’s about education, it’s about friendship and making commitments, enduring disappointment. It’s a life lesson. And it’s a hand up, not a hand out!”

Article originally appears in Edible Nutmeg, Summer 2009

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