by Craig Hickman
Tyler DeAngelis doesn’t know what he wants to be when he grows up. An environmental scientist, perhaps. Maybe even a chemist or biologist. Whatever he decides, he wants to earn enough income so he can retire to one of his great desires: growing wholesome organic vegetables.
A 17-year-old senior and President of the Student Body at Maranacook Community High School in Readfield, Tyler is a blessing. Last year, after bemoaning the tasteless lettuce on the school cafeteria’s salad bar, he decided he could do better. He made up his mind to transform a grassy area behind the high school into a sweep of organic gardens.
Both his parents supported him, but his mother, Tara Wicks, wasn’t sure he’d be able to pull it off. “Gardening is such hard work,” she told me over the phone, “and I didn’t know where he’d find the time.”
He found plenty. He built 10-inch raised beds and filled them with the fertile soil he built from loam and compost. He planted carrots, tomatoes, lettuce, spinach, broccoli, daikon radishes, potatoes, beans, peppers, winter squash, herbs, flowers, and more. He secured it all from wildlife with an ingenious 7-foot-tall fence made of poles and deer netting. He timed the plantings to be ready for harvest just as school began.
It’s harvest time. I was thinking about Tyler’s gardens. Wondering if his organic produce was well-received. So when I ran into his family-on-bikes at the Common Ground Fair last Saturday and Tyler told me a local paper recently ran an article about his ambitious senior project, I knew it was serendipity.
Turns out that last week, he harvested 30 pounds of string beans for the cafeteria and froze three quarts of pesto from the aromatic basil he grew for the first time. On a recent visit to the high school, I was happy to hear students tell me that they loved eating everything he grows.
Late this past spring, Tyler visited my farm in order to get a few tips on how to grow things organically. We walked through my acre of gardens and it immediately became clear to me that this young man didn’t need much help at all. I actually learned a few tricks from him. I was able, however, to introduce him to a few plants he’d heard of, but never seen growing. He took an interest in the intriguing blackeye pea plant, with its triangular foliage, upright tendrils, and bean pods that form in groups of three like antennae at the end of a stem that attracts wasps and honey bees like flies to manure. When he told me he would plant some in his gardens as soon as he had the chance, a part of me thought he was just being nice. Busy as he already was, no way would he get around to it.
Earlier this summer, on my way home from the Readfield Farmer’s Market, I stopped by the school and searched out Tyler’s gardens. Upon finding them, I was immediately struck by their exquisite design. The meticulous matrix planting scheme of each bed. No wonder one of the teachers whose classroom overlooks all these majestic growing things said the view alone helps her teach better. When I finally noticed the seedlings of blackeye peas, a smile wide as Maranacook Lake broke across my face. I was lucky enough to be at his school this week when Tyler ate one for the first time. We tore open the leathery pods, pushed out the spotted, light-green peas and savored their salty-sweet flavor.
I’m so proud of him. More of our high schools need a Tyler or two. There’s nothing more local, nothing healthier than vegetables that come from organic gardens just outside the cafeteria door. Children will eat anything that tastes good—tender baby carrots, fragrant broccoli florets, succulent mixed lettuce greens, fresh blackeye peas—and organic food tastes terrific.
Tyler may not know what he wants to be when he grows up—but right now, he’s an inspiration for our entire community.