STEM garden will bloom in Annandale

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Crop rotation and irrigation are terms not usually associated with a suburban garden. But the "Busy Bee Garden" behind St. Ambrose School in Annandale uses that technology along with solar panels and a weather station to manage a sustainable organic garden. Even the name suggests sustainability, with bees helping to pollinate the plants.

The garden will be a tool for teaching students entrepreneurial business skills, but service and respect for God's creations is the prime goal. And the timing of the new garden coincides with Pope Francis' encyclical on the environment expected to be released June 18.

The garden was blessed and officially opened June 10 with a ceremony at the school.

Sister Bernadette McManigal, superintendent for diocesan schools, welcomed garden club members and families. She said the garden is a wonderful project that will help students and the community.

Sister Bernadette and Principal Barbara Dalmut cut the ceremonial ribbon. Eagle Scout candidate Ben Dean read from Genesis before Father Charles Smith, parochial vicar, walked through the garden and blessed the crops and garden club members with holy water.

The garden was Dean's Eagle Scout project. He's a junior at W.T. Woodson High School in Fairfax and a parishioner of St. Ambrose Church. He also graduated from St. Ambrose School.

"I knew they wanted a garden, and I wanted to give something back. I love the school," he said.

With the help of a $4,000 grant from the Birk Family Foundation, planning for the project began last fall. Fourth-grade teacher Cathy Park was the sponsor, and parent Mike Thieman acted as the architect and handled the technical aspects and installation of the project. He also installed the deer fence and the irrigation system. Dean and some friends labored to prepare the area, build beds, set foot path rocks and place the fence posts. The students planted the seeds.

The garden measures roughly 30 feet by 40 feet and slopes down a hill. It will produce lettuce, tomatoes, cucumbers, radishes, kale, chard, potatoes and horseradish among other vegetables. The garden also will yield flowers like lavender and marigolds. Aromatic herbs like rosemary, basil, parsley and cilantro will be used to keep deer from feasting on the young plants and insects from destroying them.

Thieman said the first crops to be harvested will be lettuce and tomatoes, and that should begin in July. He expects to harvest about 100 pounds of tomatoes before the growing season ends.

Only organic fertilizers like worm castings are used. The digital irrigation system, powered by solar panels, is programmed to turn on and off four times a day. Water will flow through soaker hoses positioned in the vegetable beds.

The garden will produce food and income. Plans call for selling the produce after Sunday Masses and using the income to help local food pantries and shelters, including the Katherine K. Hanley Family Shelter and Christ House in Alexandria. Excess produce will be given to shelters. The income also will help keep the garden self-sufficient.

The garden is a huge commitment for the garden club members. The students signed a contract with their parents acknowledging the commitment and responsibility required. That commitment includes coming in over summer break to tend the garden.

"Hopefully the lettuce and tomatoes will grow quickly and abundantly so we can get something to everyone," said Thieman.

Borowski can be reached at dborowski@catholicherald.com or on Twitter @DBorowskiACH.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2015