Get Growing

Student-run spring plant sale provides a temporary garden
center for Bear Creek

By Holly West | Photography by Hillary graves

One chilly afternoon in mid-February, classmates Andrew Hicks and Dylan Lee were transferring sprouts of budding herbs, flowers and other plants from small trays, called cell packs, into larger pots. The two seniors at Chatham Central High School are both enrolled in the school’s horticulture program and grew the plants from seeds in the school’s greenhouse. Arranged around them were rows and rows of young plants, from sweet peppers and squash and other vegetables to perennials like candytufts and rosemary.

“It’s completely student-run and student-maintained,” says Chris Hart, a teacher at Chatham Central who has run the horticulture program for seven years. “The kids are responsible for a crop. They see that crop all the way through the production cycle.”

With the transplanting done, Andrew, Dylan and their classmates look after the plants every day until early April, when the greenhouses open to the public for the school’s annual plant sale. The sale, which dates back generations at Chatham Central, expects to draw hundreds. Both Andrew and Dylan have taken horticulture classes all four years of high school, seeding, transplanting and growing thousands of plants.

“You’re not just going to be stuck in a classroom in a chair,” says Andrew, who is enrolled in the advanced studies greenhouse management course. “We get to do a lot of hands-on stuff outside.”

The school’s plethora of plants span four greenhouses and a nursery and include almost any plant an amateur gardener could want, from potted flowers and hanging baskets to herbs and vegetables, shrubs and other landscaping plants.

The program holds three sales per year. The largest is the spring sale, which opens April 7 and runs through early June. The program also holds a fall sale that includes wintertime plants like mums, pansies and kale and a poinsettia sale near Christmas. Chris says preparations for the sale keep his students working in the greenhouses all year. “Even my introductory-level students, we’ll get them involved,” he says. “And their involvement gets more in-depth as they go on in the program.”

Chatham Central’s greenhouses are near and dear to Chris. He participated in the program as a student in the early aughts and now oversees the approximately 100 students who help maintain the greenhouses year-round. While most of his students don’t go on to careers in horticulture, Chris says the lessons they learn in his classes will serve them wherever they end up. Some horticulture skills directly translate to other agriculture-based jobs, like landscaping or the area’s longstanding poultry industry. But even students who will never plant another seed take away strong life skills.

“They need to be able to hear directions one time and be able to follow them,” Chris says. “Learning to take pride in their work. On the plants, all the labels have to be at the front, the plants need to be grouped together. Some of the stuff, it’s not that it’s not taught in a traditional classroom, but we’re set up for it. It’s expressed a little bit easier.”

Chris says he makes improvements to the program each year with proceeds from annual sales, which roll directly back into the program. In addition to paying for supplies, equipment and maintenance, Chris has made improvements to the greenhouses that make them more efficient. The program has also sent students to leadership conferences across the country.

After the spring sale, Chris and his students will immediately start work on preparing plants for the fall sale. There aren’t plans to expand the program anytime soon. “This is enough to keep us busy,” Chris says. “It keeps us on our toes.” 

CHATHAM CENTRAL HIGH SCHOOL SPRING PLANT SALE

When April 7-early June. Monday-Friday, 1:30-5:30pm; Saturday, 8am-noon; other times by appointment.

Where Chatham Central High School, 14950 N.C. Hwy. 902 W., Bear Creek

Contact facebook.com/CCHSGreenhouses; chart@chatham.k12.nc.us; 919-837-2251

How does your garden grow? With these tips

Three local gardening pros share advice and secrets for getting new gardens started and established ones blooming this spring. See their pictures in our April/May issue.

When should people start planting spring flowers?

Katie “We usually advise people to plant spring perennials in fall
and the fall perennials in the spring. It gives the plants more time to get their roots established.” However with a bit of extra attention spring flowers planted later will be fine. “[In that case] you should give the plants about 2 inches of water every week until the roots are established.”

John “After the last frost date, which is around mid to late April.” John says late frosts can often take people off guard and wipe out flowers that have been planted outside.

Hillary “Spring flowers start the season or two before they bloom. Flowers are the main event but the plants need time to put down a good root system and plenty of leaves to make that show happen.” Perennial flowers, shrubs and grasses can be planted after they go dormant in the fall and winter, while cool-season bedding annuals are best planted in late February and March. “By April, all your hard work from last fall and winter should be evident by the solid carpet of blooms!”

What are the best types of flowers to plant in April and May? How about vegetables?

Hillary “By April in the Piedmont, it’s prime time for just about any warm-season flower or vegetable you want to grow.” Favorites are begonias, dahlias, elephant ears and several varieties of lilies. Spring is also perfect for planting perennial fruiting crops and any warm season crops. “Any time after April 15th, our average last frost date,
plant away!”

Katie Bloodroot, green and gold, and Jacob’s ladder. “Later in the spring things like milkweeds are going to do well.” Cure Nursery protects any herb or vegetable seed until temperatures hit 65 degrees. Start any vegetables in April indoors.

John Warm season annuals or perennials. Vegetables, herbs and some fruiting plants also can start this time of year. Raspberries and blueberries tend to do particularly well.

What are the biggest mistakes you see amateur gardeners make?

Katie “Soil amendment! A lot of people just dig right into the clay. But the good thing about native plants is that they can take that a lot of the time.” Visit the County Extension Office for great information, soil test kits and, often, free soil samples.

Hillary “If you are itching to get fruit trees & shrubs planted in the spring set yourself up for success by taking that time instead to test your soil, amend your soil and plant a cover crop to get perennial weeds under control.” Bring your soil tests results to Country Farm & Home for advice on how to best amend your soil.

John If you must plant in clay, allow plenty of room to grow and good drainage.

What tips do you have for amateur gardeners?

John “Bigger stores start getting in [spring flowers] before the last frost date and then we get a late freeze and it kills them. Just be patient.”

Hillary “Harvest flowers for arrangements and dead head regularly because the more blooms you pick, the more blooms they make!” Hillary also says that tucking marigolds, celosia, basil and zinnias around vegetable plants can entice beneficial pollinators to your garden and ensure good fruit set and insect control.”

Katie “One of the biggest obstacles is deer.” Deer-resistant plants like aromatic plants and buckeye are a good way to keep them out. “And if you’re nervous, don’t be afraid to throw a tomato cage around the plants.”  CM

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