Growing and knowing: OCHS science students, staff construct greenhouse, native plants garden

Orange County High School junior Morgan Nicklow throws up his hands and welcomes a burst of spring sunshine during a visit to the construction site for the school’s greenhouse. Pictured with him, from left, are: Junior Dillon Craig, biology and ecology teacher Anna Burkett and senior Olivia Falb. Burkett expressed her gratitude to all the local residents who have donated rain barrels and other much-needed materials and supplies.

Tucked away in a far corner of the Orange County High School (OCHS) campus, a partially constructed building looms into view. With metal tubes arching upward to create a bare-bones frame and a foundation that looks like a large sandbox, it begs the question: What is it? Or more precisely, what will it be? 

Next week, the answer will be clear once the temporary structure’s plastic walls and roof go up. Everyone who wanders behind the parking lot and past the softball field will know OCHS has its own greenhouse.

It is a project dear to biology and ecology teacher Anna Burkett and the students who share her love of gardening and farming.

On a recent morning when spring still felt more like a promise than a sure thing, Burkett and three of her students sat down for an interview in her classroom before heading out for a look at the greenhouse-in-progress.

“We want to make it self-sustaining,” Burkett said of the greenhouse. “The community has been awesome with donations.”

Lee Turner, manager of Bonnie Plant Farm in Rhoadesville, provided the framework for the greenhouse, and Cedar Mountain Stone came through with a load of gravel. When Burkett put out a call for rain barrels, many people responded quickly and generously. Other donated items include two large solar panels, from District 2 Supervisor Jim White, that will be used to pump water from the barrels into the greenhouse.

Vegetables, flowers … and fish

If all goes as planned, the greenhouse will provide a nurturing home not just for young vegetable plants and flowers but also the makings for many a seafood dinner.

Pointing at a bubbling fish tank connected by a tube to a second tank filled with plants rooted in water, Burkett said it is a small, classroom version of what she plans to install in the greenhouse. Water cycles from the fish tank to the other tank, positioned above it, and back again. The plants absorb the nitrates and phosphates from the fish waste. When the water returns to the fish tank, it is clean.

“The goldfish are super-happy,” Burkett said, and the other tank is full of healthy, well-fertilized green plants.

The aquaponics system she has planned for the greenhouse will not involve goldfish. “We’ll put probably a 200- to 300-gallon water tank in there and grow tilapia or trout, along with several beds of greens or vegetables,” she said. “So, then at the end, you harvest your food stuffs, your plant-based materials, and then you harvest the fish and you have the self-contained, pioneer-style project that you’ve seen—it’s alternative farming.”

With $3,000 in grants from the Rappahannock Electric Co-op, the Virginia Farm Bureau and the Orange County Education Foundation, she was able to launch the greenhouse project. A new grant from the Chesapeake Bay Trust will help pay for the aquaponics system. Dominion Energy Charitable Foundation has recently agreed to provide $1,500 for supplies.

The building has a 30- by 30-foot base and is about 16 feet tall. The plastic that will enclose it cost about $1,000—a major expense. As for construction, Burkett caught a break. Her husband, Philip Burkett, has donated his time after getting off work from his job as battalion chief for Albemarle Fire and Rescue. Anna and her students have pitched in with construction as well.

Where do vegetables come from?

Burkett said many of her students have little idea where vegetables come from—other than the supermarket. She wants them to be actively involved in the life of fresh produce from seedtime through harvest. Imagining future classes, she said, “They will pick seeds; they will grow them. We [will] talk about different substrates—sand, soil, compost. How do those affect growth patterns?”

She is especially interested in pursuing the question of growth patterns. “In doing that, you’re really talking about a scientific method process and coming up with a question, a hypothesis, how are we going to make this work, collecting data and saying, ‘Hey, you know what, plants don’t really like sand.’”

A graduate of Virginia Tech with degrees in agricultural economics and animal science, Burkett, 39, taught science in the upper school at Grymes Memorial School before joining the OCHS faculty in 2016.

Lighthearted and relaxed in the company of her students, she is in earnest about the wide-ranging utility of the greenhouse. She sees it as an interdisciplinary endeavor and would like colleagues who teach economics to get her students thinking about the business side of a greenhouse.

That side is much on her mind. To generate income to keep the greenhouse going, she envisions periodic sales of flowers and herbs. To pay for much-needed pots, soil and seeds, she and her students are already selling potted basil for $2 each.

A garden for all to enjoy

Some of the students who share her love of the greenhouse project are in the high school’s conservation club, begun this school year at the instigation of OCHS senior Olivia Falb. A student in the Blue Ridge Virtual Governor’s School, Falb discovered her passion for environmental conservation while completing a governor’s school assignment in 10th grade.

Falb, who lives in Locust Grove, grew up around gardens and said her family currently grows herbs. As her legacy project, a requirement for students graduating from the governor’s school, she is working to create the OCHS native plant garden, which will double as an outdoor classroom, with the guidance of her science teachers, including Burkett, Dr. Suzanne Wilmoth and her project adviser Deanna Estes, chair of the science department.

“What I specifically found in my research,” Falb said, “is that education involved with hands-on activity allows kids to retain information better.” Her hope is that a school garden will help students better understand plant life. She speaks with enthusiasm of students using a “dichotomous key” that will help them figure out what kind of plants and flowers they are looking at. The garden will serve as a complement to the greenhouse.

Falb has been submitting grant applications in pursuit of funding for the garden. It will likely come to life during the next school year after she has graduated and headed off to William & Mary, where she plans to major in biology or environmental science with an eye toward a career in marine science or environmental law.

Like Burkett, Falb sees great potential for interdisciplinary activity. She wants young artists and writers to find inspiration in the native plants garden and enjoy spending time there.

Honeysuckle, iris and blueberries

Burkett said there is no definitive list of plants that will go in the garden, to be located in what is known as the “Senior Courtyard” at the high school. However, possibilities include coral honeysuckle (for vining), dwarf crested iris, grass-leaf blazing star, milkweed (for their flowers), ground pine and bloodroot (for groundcover) and mountain laurel, spicebush, low bush blueberry and black raspberry (for shrubbery).

Although Falb has promised to come back and check on the garden, OCHS juniors Morgan Nicklow and Dillon Craig will have the opportunity to continue the work she has begun and help Burkett with the greenhouse. They, too, say they plan to apply what they are learning about ecology and environmental science to their future lives and careers.

For the time being, all of them have their work cut out for them. Putting up the plastic walls of the greenhouse will be the main event next week. To facilitate every step that will come after that, Burkett is putting out a call for supplies people might otherwise discard. Gesturing toward a stack of secondhand plastic pots, she said, “My philosophy is, your trash is our treasure!”

To donate supplies to the greenhouse and native garden at OCHS, contact Anna Burkett at aburkett@ocss-va.org. The following items are needed: seeds, soil, mulch, pots, seed propagation tools, simple garden tools (gloves, trowels), hose, wheelbarrow or garden cart, greenhouse tables or pallets that can be used as tables, cinder blocks and 50-gallon blue barrels.

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