Spring Planting and Spreading the Word in Schools

April was a busy month in the SIFT project. In addition to getting ready for Butte’s notoriously short growing season, we spent even more time with young people to introduce them to the principles of sustainable agriculture. Earth Day, of course, was a natural.

Camille Green the AmeriCorps VISTA volunteer working on SIFT, spent the afternoon on Earth Day at a Butte Elementary School—along with local EnergyCorps members Kaleena Miller, Kiran Singh, and Ryan Ayers; VISTA member Sheila Markazi; and local government intern Julian Crain—talking about the three Rs of environmental awareness: Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle.

Among other projects, EnergyCorps is working on increasing recycling in Butte.

“Since (Butte Silver-Bow) no longer offers glass-recycling services, we have been trying to do demonstrations that show how glass cullet can be reused,” Camille said. Students used three different sizes of cullet—smooth, prepared pellets of broken glass—to decorate an Earth Day mosaic for their school. For her part, Camille talked to the students about using cullet as mulch, as well as composting and the challenges of growing vegetables in Butte.

A few days later, Camille took her sustainable-agriculture show on the road to the Montana Tech campus of the University of Montana in Butte. The school hosted an event to get fourth and sixth graders interested in science, engineering, and math.

For each of several classes, Camille gave a quick presentation on the primary soil nutrients and talked about the physical qualities of good garden soil. The students then broke up into small groups, which each used a different kind of potting soil to create small planters out of Stryofoam cups.

AmeriCorps VISTA member Sheila Markazi, left, works with students from a Butte elementary school on an Earth Day art project organized by SIFT AmeriCorps member Camille Green. The students are, from left to right, Greg Hamker, Keegan Frandsen, Katelyn Warren, and Kaelen Doherty.

When Camille started handing out cucumber seeds, one young participant rolled her eyes and turned to her neighbors. “Cucumbers? Why does it have to be cucumbers?” But she pitched right in for the next step.

They used a bag of organic potting soil and then mixed two kinds of potting soil—one composed of compost Camille made at NCAT along with coir (coconut husk) and rice hulls. The other included compost, coir, and glass sand.

“Another group of students helped to harvest out worm castings, so that they could add a small amount of fertilizer to their soil, but mainly because little kids love worm poop,” Camille said. “I asked them to keep an eye on their plants and discuss their observations with their classmates to see what potting soil mix seemed to work best. It was very messy, and very fun.”

Next, Camille is going to high school students.

“I’ve been working with two teachers at Butte High to do a presentation next week about soil, basics of gardening, and sustainable food systems,” she said. “We’ll mix our own potting soil, plant a number of seed plugs, and then keep them in the school greenhouse and observe their progress. Students will eventually have the option of taking some of the starts home, or the starts will be donated to a local school garden.”

In other news from Camille:

VISTA approval
NCAT has recently been approved to have another VISTA member working with SIFT next year. If you think you’ve got what it takes to work with Camille, then apply here: https://my.americorps.gov/mp/listing/viewListing.do?fromSearch=true&id=39990

Starts and potting soil
I have mixed about 10 different types of potting soils to see what I like best and what seems to be the cheapest and most sustainable options. I do not want to use peat moss, which is a very unsustainable material. I also have issues using perlite and vermiculite, both of which are produced in both environmentally hazardous and ethically questionable ways. All three are common materials in potting soil mixes. It’s important to remember that just because something is organic does not mean it’s sustainable.

So far I have had good luck mixing the compost I create with rice hulls or glass sand, and coir. Coir, rice hulls, and glass sand are all by-products of industry that would normally be thrown away. Just a side note, the ideal garden soil is 25% air, 25% water, 45% mineral, and 5% organic matter. I have many starts in many different types of potting soil growing in the greenhouses, which I will get outside in the very near future.

It’s compost season! I have started picking up compostables from Albertsons twice a week, and the piles are really picking up speed. I have started hosting volunteer days again and was lucky enough to even have some volunteer compost turners on the weekend.

Posted on: May 7th, 2012