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Wake County school harvests big lessons from strawberry patch

May 18, 2009

Media Contact: Dr. Gina Fernandez, small fruits specialist and associate professor of horticultural science, North Carolina State University, 919-513-7416 or gina_fernandez@ncsu.edu

While North Carolina strawberry growers look forward to a bumper crop of berries this month, second graders at Raleigh's Swift Creek Elementary School also are watching their small crop come in. Though the berries are arriving a few weeks later than those of commercial growers, the students and their teachers have gained a wealth of knowledge from their year-long study of strawberries and how they grow.

The project started last fall as a collaboration between Dr. Gina Fernandez, small fruits specialist and associate professor of horticultural science at N.C. State University, and Swift Creek second grade teacher Megan Sedaghat. Fernandez's daughter, Anya Yencho, is a student in Sedaghat's class this year. When Sedaghat learned of Fernandez's expertise with strawberries, she asked if Fernandez would help students grow and study strawberries.

The North Carolina Strawberry Association also got involved, providing Strawberry Time coloring books for the students and some funds to help develop a school curriculum on strawberries that other schools could implement.

As a crop, strawberries fit nicely into a traditional calendar school year, Fernandez said. The strawberry plants are planted in the fall, cared for throughout the winter and harvested in May, just before the school year ends. School gardens planted in the spring won't yield their harvest of tomatoes, cucumbers and peppers until mid-summer, after students have left school.

Last fall, Fernandez helped the second-grade classes prepare a bed for strawberries, covered in plastic like most commercial strawberry beds in North Carolina. Each of five classes planted six strawberry plants to raise during the school year. During the winter, students monitored night-time temperatures and covered their plants when a freeze was expected. They also had to cover their plants with netting when birds and squirrels threatened their berries.

Second-grade students don't study plants as part of the state's curriculum, but they do study measurement, so Fernandez helped the class set up a system for measuring plant growth each month throughout the growing season. Fernandez visited the school each month to measure and weigh different plant parts. Students in Sedaghat's class kept "scientific journals" to record the progress of their strawberry crop during the year.

In early May, they measured their final plant of the growing season. First, Fernandez removed the plant from its pot, and then students rinsed dirt off the plant's roots so they could measure their length. Sedaghat, a self-proclaimed pack rat, still had the dried roots sample from the first plant the students measured in the fall, so the students were able to compare how the plants' roots had grown since September.

The day the students measured their last strawberry plant was significant in another way: the school cafeteria served strawberries at lunch that day. North Carolina strawberries will be served in 47 school districts across the state this season through the N.C. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services' Farm to School program. The Swift Creek students will receive another unexpected treat for their efforts - a quart of berries for each second grader from the Piedmont Agricultural Research Station in Salisbury, where Fernandez does much of her work.

Written by: Natalie Hampton, 919.513.3128 or natalie_hampton@ncsu.edu

Posted by Dave at May 18, 2009 09:09 AM