Whaler Cafe Garden growing produce, teaching healthy life skills
New London — Whaler Café Chef Tomm Johnson looked at the overgrown, rocky patch of weeds and wildflowers outside the café entrance a year ago and started dreaming.
He sketched stick-figure-like trees, squares and rectangles to indicate raised garden beds, lines to show paths and arrows to show where tomatoes, pumpkins and other plants could grow.
On Saturday, about 40 students, school officials and community supporters of the Whaler Café Garden gathered to celebrate a grand opening and tour of the outdoor garden, the Whaler Café and the greenhouse and indoor hydroponic and aquaponic gardens cultivated by environmental sciences classes in the Science and Technology Magnet High School next door.
NLHS Principal Tommy Thompson thanked supporters from several funding foundations and garden groups that helped fund the $18,000 to $20,000 continuously expanding project.
“You took something that was really an eyesore and turned it into something beautiful,” Thompson said.
Along with the neatly arranged garden beds teeming with fresh vegetables and fruits, project planners created an outdoor science classroom with six benches facing a flat area in front of a giant boulder that provides “a perfect backdrop,” STMHS environmental sciences teacher Charles Mulligan said.
It’s hard to tell the dividing line between New London High School’s culinary program and the STMHS science program in what participants call a “true partnership.”
Experimental vertical hydroponic vegetable plant towers stand both in the STMHS greenhouse and in the Whaler Café kitchen.
A fish tank in the Whaler Café houses the baby blue tilapia that turn into the large, edible fish in a giant tank in the greenhouse.
Outside, students from the magnet high school offered tours to community sponsors of the gardens that include three long raised beds, 30 smaller square or rectangular beds — one of them raised higher for handicapped-access planting, weeding and harvesting — and a large square pumpkin patch.
Blueberry plants line one edge, and dwarf apple trees sit in the centers of some of the raised beds.
Magnet high school sophomore Kalissa Contino explained that the soil used in the beds is a combination of potting soil, dried seaweed and fertilizer.
About 50 percent of the plantings were grown from seeds and 50 percent transplanted from sprouts, she said.
A hose with several Y-shaped connector valves and sprinkler attachments snake along the paths.
Volunteer high school students and community supporters will monitor the watering and take care of the gardens over the summer.
The fresh vegetables produced will be used for summer programs.
Bambi Poppick of the Eastern Connecticut Community Gardens Association said the association donated about $6,000 to the project, including the apple trees and blueberry bushes.
That amount is likely to increase, because “Chef Tomm keeps planning to expand,” she said.
An association volunteer will come regularly with a weed-whacker to keep the garden environs clear of weeds, she said.
She asked questions and took mental notes of gardening tips during the tour, and stopped briefly to pick and eat a snow pea as she admired the robust plants.
In the outdoor classroom area, culinary students past and present put the vegetables to work, using chef Johnson’s portable outdoor oven to make fresh pizzas and calzones with fresh basil, tomato slices, garlic, pepperoni and sauce.
The students have been harvesting tomatoes from the greenhouse plants since late February, Mulligan said.
Saturday’s dedication was part of a “Farm to School” garden weekend.
On Friday, students shared a barbecue with local farmers that featured all local products, said Samantha Wilson, food service director for New London schools.
All products at the barbecue were purchased from local producers, including the burgers from Brush Hill Farm in Bozrah.
The meal also included local bread, milk products and vegetables.
“We wanted to have a meal that featured 100 percent locally sourced products,” Wilson said. “It’s an exciting end-of-the-year barbecue local lunch.”
Students and staff won’t be the only ones who get to taste the results of the collaboration.
Johnson recently was certified as a Connecticut farmer by the state Department of Agriculture, allowing him to sell produce from the Whaler Café Garden at local farmers’ markets this summer.
It won’t end there, he said.
“I’m the actual farmer of this land,” Johnson said, “and we’re about to be registered as a restaurant.”
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