The Ferry Beach Ecology School in Saco has given a new name to its organic garden.
“We are calling it a ‘sustainable food ecosystem,’ ” said John Ibsen, coordinator of the school’s Food for Thought program. “This garden is our feeble attempt to replicate a natural ecosystem.”
Ibsen showed a bit of a twinkle when he mentioned the new name, but it fits with the school’s goals.
“Our focus is on the science of ecology,” said executive director Drew Dumsch, “and the practice of sustainability. It is sustainability applied to ecology.”
Founded in 1999, Ferry Beach Ecology School hosts students from other schools for as little as an afternoon or as long as a week, taking advantage of the seven natural ecosystems within walking distance of the school and teaching about nature and ecology. It’s located at a Unitarian summer camp that was established in 1901, and uses the buildings when the camp isn’t. So far, 80,000 students have taken part in the program.
The garden is located on a challenging site that was built on beach sand on secondary dunes and buffeted by ocean winds. But the students and staff have slowed the winds by creating woven fences from trees cut down for projects elsewhere on the property.
The soil is improved by a no-till method of lasagna gardening, where layers of organic matter and newspapers are put down and allowed to decompose to create a rich topsoil.
“We teach that it takes 5,000 years in nature to create an inch of topsoil, but we can make it a lot faster,” Dumsch said.
Ibsen stresses putting plants close together, having mulch and compost on the soil and gardening vertically, to make the most of a garden that is about the size of a small house lot.
“Bare soil is like an open wound, letting out soil moisture and soil fertility,” Ibsen said.
He combines the permaculture and American Indian practice of the three sisters with a crop rotation in several plots in the garden. The three sisters are corn, squash and beans. The corn provides structure for the beans to climb, the beans provide nitrogen to the soil for the other two plants, and the squash shades the soil to keep weeds to a minimum.
The planting pattern is more like a forest, Ibsen said, where there is a mixture of plants rather than the distinct rows of a traditional vegetable garden.
After the squash is harvested in October, Ibsen has the students plant garlic, which is supposed to cleanse the soil. This year, he planted some summer squash around the garlic a few weeks before the garlic harvest to make more use of the soil.
Next year, that plot will be planted with peas, rye and vetch, all of which improve the soil.
In another area, Ibsen uses more combination planting with an apple tree as a centerpiece. Rhubarb will improve the soil. Fennel is believed to repel a lot of apple-tree pests. And bee balm will attract a lot of pollinators.
Ibsen was especially proud of a tomato cage that was about 7 feet tall and 6 feet long, made entirely from items taken from a Dumpster at a school construction project.
The wood for the frame came from discarded pallets. The tomatoes climb metal reinforcing grids that usually go into a concrete floor.
All of this is put together in a package that will please older elementary and middle-school students. There are wanted posters for some of the bad bugs, such as Japanese beetles and tomato hornworms.
The little red garden shed has snacks from the garden as well as tools. The woven fences are both whimsical and practical. The mammoth sunflowers are about 8 feet tall with foot-wide seed heads.
Although the garden provides only a small percentage of the food served at the school, the dining hall is used as a teaching tool.
“With the kind of teaching we do here, we didn’t want the cafeteria food to be from Sysco,” Dumsch said.
It costs the school about an extra $30,000 a year to get organic and local food, he said, but donations help pay for it.
One of the major fundraisers for the school will be Eco Appetito, to be held from noon to 3 p.m. Oct. 2 at Cinque Terre, 36 Wharf St. in Portland.
Chef Lee Skawinski and his staff will be preparing locally sourced food, wine and beer. There also will be live entertainment, door prizes and a silent auction. Tickets are $40.
Tom Atwell can be contacted at 791-6362 or at: