Artichokes to zucchinis and asters to zinnias — hundreds of vegetables, flowers and fruits will be on display at the remarkable Troy Howard Middle School farm/garden in Belfast on Friday, Sept. 5, from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. The public is invited to visit this astonishing and hugely successful endeavor that is the result of hundreds of hours of work by Jon Thurston, the Agricultural Coordinator for the district, and his army of middle school students.

“This was the kids’ idea,” Thurston says, “They want to do this ‘Open Garden Day’ as a service learning project. They will be manning the farm stand, conducting tours, and serving snacks, including pesto and salsa, that they’ve made from the garden they’ve planted, mulched, weeded, nurtured and harvested.”

The students also decided that all proceeds from the event — there is a suggested donation of $4/per person — should go to the Belfast Garden Club Scholarship Fund, which annually contributes to Get Growing, the school’s summer garden camp.

If your image of a school’s garden is of a few raised beds planted with some tomatoes, cucumbers and squash, do yourself a huge favor and visit this garden. Actually, calling it a “garden” isn’t quite accurate — this is a 22,000 square-foot farm that includes greenhouses, an outdoor clay oven, extensive composting systems, a hoop house, and a farm stand. It is, indeed, a living classroom where students apply traditionally learned, classroom skills in countless creative ways.

“Experiential learning is our goal," Thurston said. "If you integrate something from real life with learning, the kids will be engaged.”

Some of the crossover skills are obvious — science and biology, for example. But students in the school’s “Ecology Academy” have used their math skills to design a formal herb garden and calculate monies spent on seeds and earned at the farm stand. Their language arts skills are put to work on the garden’s Facebook page. They gain experience in public relations and the retail environment by running the garden’s farm stand.

Because students are not in school when the garden needs the most attention, the summer camp is an integral part of the project’s success. Begun in 2006, Get Growing brings approximately 15 kids to the garden twice weekly for seven weeks. Each day begins with a “formal” lesson on some aspect of gardening, followed by working in the gardens. The list of chores is endless — weeding, dividing, transplanting, watering, planting, pruning, deadheading, harvesting, mulching, thinning and beyond. At 11 a.m., work stops each camp day and fun begins when the gardeners turn their harvest into lunch that’s prepared and enjoyed by all. Pizza Wednesday is a favorite, of course, Thurston says. The kids make their own pizza from scratch, top it with veggies they’ve planted and harvested, and then bake it in the outdoor clay oven. This year’s favorite meal was garlic scape pesto served on top of new potatoes. Their second favorite food was anything they made with the artichokes they grew.

The gardeners certainly have a wide variety of foods to choose from when they plan their menus. A partial list of the crops they grow includes sweet potatoes, chard, tomatoes, kale, cucumbers, zucchini, squashes, pumpkins, broccoli, cauliflower, collard greens, peas, Brussels sprouts, many varieties of corn, and ground cherries.

The school’s chard is practically revered by locals.

“We plant the seeds in late September,” Thurston said, “begin harvesting it in mid-October, and bring it to the Belfast Co-op on Tuesday and Friday mornings. There’s actually a rush among customers to buy our chard."

The Co-op also sells heirloom seeds that the students collect, cultivate and package, as well as rosemary plants that they grow.

Gardening experts from around the state have also recognized the quality of food grown at the Troy Howard garden. Each year, the students take part in the Common Ground Fair competition among farmers showcasing their harvest. In 2013, they brought home 72 ribbons!

Approximately half of the food from this award-winning garden is used in the school’s kitchen to create tasty and healthy meals for the students; one-quarter is sold to the Co-op or at the student-run farm stand; and one-quarter is donated to local charities.

The farm stand is open at the school Monday through Friday, 2 to 4 p.m., from the beginning of September through the end of October. You can get a terrific sneak preview of the garden on the “Troy Howard Middle School Garden” Facebook page — it even features two live webcams.

Troy Howard Middle School is located at 173 Lincolnville Avenue (Route 52) in Belfast, adjacent to the YMCA. Don’t miss this rare chance to see a remarkable flower- and vegetable-filled garden and, at the same time, support our children’s learning experiences. For more information, call the school at 338-3320.