Troy Howard Middle School Garden Project teacher David Wessels shows students how to harvest potatoes Thursday afternoon at the school. Credit: Abigail Curtis

Every fall, Mainers get out the rakes and attack the drifts of maple, oak and other leaves that land on their lawns.

But what happens to the piled-up leaves? The seventh-graders at Troy Howard Middle School in Belfast have one answer. Several years ago, leaves raked up by city residents were scooped up by municipal officials and trucked over to the middle school, where they were left in giant mounds and exposed to the sun, rain and snow. Over time, the dried-up and crackly leaves transformed into rich, fertile soil. Earlier this year, David Wessels, the coordinator of the middle school’s garden project, decided to try an experiment. He thought the old leaf piles would be a good place to try growing something unusual.

“Next time you guys see a pile of leaves, think about how much fertility there is,” he told the seventh-graders helping him on Thursday afternoon.

The task at hand was harvesting potatoes — and not just any old variety, either. At the 2017 Common Ground Country Fair, a friend gave him a handful of heirloom fingerling potatoes with a pretty cool backstory. They were Ozettes, the oldest variety of potato grown in the Pacific Northwest. The potatoes were brought from South America in the late 1700s by Spaniards who built a fort on the Strait of Juan de Fuca, in what’s now Washington state. The Spaniards grew them in the garden at the fort, and according to tribal accounts, members of the local Makah Indian tribe traded for or otherwise acquired the potatoes from the Europeans. The tasty tubers became a staple in the tribe’s diet and have been grown by the Makah ever since, though the Ozette was unknown outside of the tribe until the 1980s. That’s when the potato, described as rich and slightly sweet in flavor, was catalogued and grown outside of the tribe for the first time.

“They’re small, waxy and really delicious,” Wessels told his students.

Credit: Abigail Curtis

The educator took the five or so potatoes he was given, cut them into pieces and planted them in the heaps of decomposed leaves. They grew like wildfire over the summer, he said, and they didn’t even get a single potato beetle on them. Now, even though the plants’ leaves were still bright green and healthy looking, it was time to harvest the potatoes.

“Alright, you guys. Get in there,” Wessels said. “Don’t be afraid to get dirty.”

The students used their hands to pull the plants up and search the rich dirt for the potatoes, tossing them into a wheelbarrow when they struck gold.

“I found one,” Shyann Walker, 13, of Searsmont called out excitedly.

Some were a little concerned about getting their clothes or their fingernails dirty, and all seemed more excited about finding earthworms or other insects than potatoes. But on the whole, they like taking part in the garden project. According to Wessels, the seventh-graders at the school take over a lot of responsibility for the garden over the course of the year, and it’s no small thing. In the greenhouses and garden plots next to the school the students grow all kinds of vegetables: onions, tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, squash, beans, garlic and much, much more. And the harvest is destined for the kitchen of their school, with extras delivered to the other schools in Regional School Unit 71.

Every fall, the garden produces between 1,000 and 1,500 pounds of vegetables for the school kitchen, and the cooks at the school are willing to work with even vegetables that many students might not ordinarily clamor for. Wessels remembers when he first started his job a few years ago and almost apologetically brought kitchen staff 100 pounds of beets.

“I thought, there’s no way,” he said, assuming the cooks would show him and his beets the door. “But they said, ‘Great, put them in the walk in. We’ll roast them.’ We try to deliver quality things for them because they go to such effort to cook them.”

Credit: Abigail Curtis

Morgan Curtis, 12, of Northport said that eating what they grow makes it extra special somehow.

“It’s even better how the vegetables go straight to the cafeteria,” she said.

Susan Duff, a math teacher at Troy Howard and an old hand at digging potatoes, joined her students in the garden. Duff, who originally is from Houlton, starting picking potatoes when she was 6 years old.

“Everybody worked the harvest,” she said. “It’s definitely a way of life up there.”

And she’s glad to see it becoming important at the Waldo County school, too.

“It’s great to have kids understand sustainability and what the earth offers,” she said. “It also teaches kids about ethics and character building and commitment, not only to the land but to one another.”

After most of the potatoes were gathered up and washed off, Wessels weighed them before bringing them to the kitchen. There were 20 pounds, a pretty good return from the five seed potatoes, he said.

“You guys, look for these in a school lunch next week,” he told his harvesters.

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