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Amherst middle schoolers learn how to grow their own food

AMHERST — Five students at the Amherst Regional Middle School have been playing in the dirt each Thursday after school as University of Massachusetts student Kelsey Welborn guides them in the planting and harvesting of all sorts of vegetables and flowers.

Welborn, 21, a rising senior majoring in sustainable food and farming in the Stockbridge School of Agriculture at UMass, started the Greenhouse Club in February. Her mother, Jennifer Welborn, teaches science at the school and Kelsey Welborn said she wanted to extend her studies to working with students in that age group.

When her mother told her that the greenhouse behind the school was never used, Kelsey Welborn jumped at the chance to start the club which has five members.

“I feel like the middle-school experience can be hard,” she said. “This club gives students something fun to do after school.”

Using organic techniques, the middle-schoolers have grown peas, spinach, cherry tomatoes, onions, basil, broccoli, rainbow chard and bib lettuce.

As soon as students set foot into the greenhouse on Thursdays, they check their plants, and immediately start watering them if needed.

“I don’t want to impose my ideas on the students,” said Welborn. “It’s their club. I just suggest ideas.”

In fact, Welborn said, they figured out how to plant on their own. “If they had a question, I just told them to read the label and they did,” she said.

One student, Grace Lucas, 12, of Shutesbury, wanted to grow flowers, so she brought in her own seeds, planted them, and now has a patch of beautiful blooms.

Lucas said she enjoys the club. “We grow awesome, amazing plants every day, and you can eat most of the plants that you grow. It’s fun.”

The garden club has been a learning experience, not only for the students, but also for Welborn.

“This is the first time I’ve had a garden,” she said. “The kids know more than I do.”

Lucas backed that up as she explained to a visitor last week, “You need to take care of your plants. You need to make sure they’re properly weeded, identifying weeds, not pulling up good plants. You also need to water the roots, and not just the top of the leaves.”

Henry Wilhelm, 13, of Amherst, likes the fact that club members can eat what they grow.

“There’s some really tasty plants in the greenhouse,” he said. “It’s important to know which of the weeds are edible, so you can eat what you’ve spent work pulling out.”

Welborn said she hopes to maintain the garden over the summer so that it will still be there for students in the fall. Since the greenhouse is small, she is also planning to start a bigger garden outside.

If that succeeds, she is hoping the harvest can be served in the cafeteria so more students can sample it.

“Some people don’t know where their food comes from,” Welborn said. “I think it’s important for people to have a close relationship with their food.”

She added, “The kids that are in (the club) are really, really motivated. They are really proud of what they’ve done.”

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