Students organize for the morning planting. Photo by Bill Minus.

Last week, I had the pleasure of observing a 2021 Sassafras Environmental Education Center class. Fifteen ninth-graders from Kent County arrived with their teacher on Tuesday morning. The SEEC staff members met the group.

The plan was for half the group to go canoeing and take water samples from Turner’s Creek. The water for tests is usually collected by the Sassafras River Keeper to measure water quality.

On this day, the students were to learn details of the test results. However, the air temperature plus the water temperature must equal at least 100 degrees. It was just too cool, so the test and canoeing were canceled. Plan B was for the canoe group to take a nature hike on the park trail system. The SEEC staff, including Wayne Gilchrest, the Program Director, led the group.

The other half of the group learned about no-till farming and non-GMO, genetically modified organisms, crops, including planting a plot of heirloom sweet corn. After a couple of hours, the two groups were to swap places, continue their studies for another couple of hours, have lunch and leave.

A jar of Teosinte seed from Seed Savers Exchange headed for the no-till plot. Photo by Bill Minus.

I decided to stay with the no-till group. Several weeks ago an area of about 150 feet x 200 feet in one of the fields had been covered with black plastic, cutting out all sunlight and the process of photosynthesis. After two or three weeks all the grass and weeds under the plastic died–without using chemicals. Usually a crop would be planted right away to germinate before the weeds could start again.

In this case the area was lightly tilled to make it easier for the students. Most of the mature crop will go to food banks or other groups. Enough corn will be dried and saved for next year’s seed corn. No additional seed will need to be purchased as long as the chain is not broken.

There were two instructors: Corrie Hopkins, a technical development representative with Bayer’s Crop Science Division, and Sabine Harvey with the University of Maryland Extension, Kent County. Harvey is also a Master Gardener.

Working in groups of three, students planted the corn in rows three feet apart. Using a long tape measure stretched across the plot as a guide, one student would dig a small hole two inches deep every six inches, followed by a second student who would drop a seed in the hole. The third student would cover the hole. Two rows were planted at the same time, creating a bit of competition that served to move the groups right along. Each row was marked with a small red flag showing the date and what was planted.

Feature Image: Kent County High School ninth graders get hands-on planting experience. Photo by Bill Minus.

The plot the students worked on last week is not part of the central SEEC garden, but is a perfect place to grow an heirloom corn crop. In addition to the Johnson County White Corn, two small plots were planted with teosinte, an early precursor of corn. Teosinte is considered an ancestor of today’s corn (Zea mays). Over 9,000 years ago, humans began to interact with wild grasses in south-central Mexico. Over thousands of years of selective breeding, the United States now produces over 13 million bushels annually–only 8 percent goes to residential uses.

Harvey explained that there is enough moisture two inches below the surface for the corn to germinate in a couple of weeks. Of course some rain along the way would help. Clover will be planted between the rows When the new plants are several inches high. Clover is a nitrogen fixer that helps to enrich the soil, Harvey said.

It was explained that early corn growers learned that sowing the seeds in small circles or square patches ensured better pollination. In time those small corn patches evolved into the large fields of today.

The lectures were much more involved than I can relate here. I will tell you that I was fascinated and the students asked many interesting questions. This group had prior classroom instructions and was now learning hands-on, with an added result of providing food to the community.

I later learned that SEEC also worked with Deep Roots of Cecil County, a shelter for homeless children and families.

The more I know about SEEC, the more impressed I am. They are funded almost entirely by grants, government programs and very few volunteers.

I would encourage you to give them a call (410-348-5214) and arrange a tour. You will be impressed, and will see the need for volunteers and donations.

Bill Minus is a storyteller who lives in Chestertown and writes about his memories and observations.