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Parkside garden center a Shore gem

By SEAN CLOUGHERTY
Managing Editor

SALISBURY, Md. (March 14, 2016) — When Jerry Kelley begins his class at Parkside High School in Salisbury, usually the first question is, “How’s  the business?”
He’s referring to the school’s A+ Garden Centre, a retail market for plants for the public, managed by students in the Career and Technology Education horticulture program.
It’s the focal point of the program’s applied learning objectives, Kelley says, bringing together lessons in business, agriculture and environmental science, not to mention the so-called soft skills of customer relations, team building and leadership.
“I think they get a good overview of a lot of different agriculture related issues,” he adds. “My goal is that they make those connections.”
It’s been at the school more than 15 years, but Kelley says it’s popularity among students has recently really taken off. Kelley said when he started teaching at Parkside there were 15 students in the program an now there are more than 50.
Most of them have no experience coming in. It’s really cool to see them excited about it.” he says. “We feel like we just got it going in the last few years.”
With two large greenhouses covering 5,400 square feet, a cold frame for winter protection and a retail sales area, the garden center is capable of handling the variety seen at many of it’s commercial counterparts, raising more than 100,000 plants through the year, starting with annuals, perennials and vegetables in the spring and summer, continuing with pansies in the fall and poinsettias up until Christmas.
What sets it apart from those other businesses — apart from doubling as a classroom — is its classification in 2014 as an All-American Selection display garden for new varieties of plants and flowers from propagators all over the United States. All-American Selections is the oldest independent testing organization for flowers and edible varieties in North America,
“Typically they go to universities or upscale gardens of botanical gardens,” Kelley says.
One of three AAS display gardens in Maryland and one two in the nation set at a high school, Parkside students are responsible for planting, caring for and evaluating the plants for their performance and appearance.
AAS judges then make the decision on whether or not the variety is a national or regional winner.
“It’s not just a business it’s also for research in the industry,” says the ag teacher. “Because we’re growing them in our climate zone we know what’s going to work best,” Kelley says.
Usually the varieties that come to the A+ Garden Centre have already been trialed in another area and risen to the top there, meaning the quality of plants coming to the garden center is often high.
That’s not gone unnoticed by the many serious gardeners on the Eastern Shore, in Maryland and beyond who want to know what new plants they’ll be able to get in the coming seasons.
“It’s so cool because people who are aware of All American Selections know what we have here,” Kelley says. “People are driving by constantly during the summer. I’ve had people from all over the world send messages about the plants.”
That adds to the students’ sense of pride in the center, he says and shows them the impact of what they are doing.
“I just really enjoy seeing the students work together as a team,” Kelley says. “They’re growing together but also growing a business. Each year the class decides the goals and what they want to do and as a class they go and figure out how to do it.”
Helping to collect data in the display garden is just a part of the research Kelley’s students do in the program. Many seniors have done independent study projects for the World Food Prize Global Youth Institute and the first five students selected to be delegates from Maryland, came out of Parkside’s program. In 2016, Layla Renshaw and Logan Dennis were selected as delegates. Renshaw’s nomination and research paper focused on Ethiopia’s nutrition challenges, impact and solutions. Dennis’ research paper was called “Namibia—Sanitation Realities.”
From thousands of applicants, about 200 high school students from the United States and other countries are selected to participate in the World Food Prize Global Youth Institute.
The World Food Prize is the foremost international award recognizing the achievements of individuals who have advanced human development by improving the quality, quantity or availability of food.
“Usually we’re doing those on holidays and in summer,” Kelley said. “That just gives them kind of a nice resume as well as the experience and collaboration.”
As if running the garden center wasn’t enough for the class, the group launched two projects last year related to their coursework.
Project Localize has seniors researching sustainable agriculture practices by local farms and documenting them as graphic essays using multimedia tools.
The class also launched its 100 Gardens project, making and selling kits for children and novice growers to grow their own vegetables in a backyard or small plot.
“It was a big success. We sold out in two days,” Kelley says. “We’ll probably expand it to some degree this year. We’ll see how it goes.”
Kelley says for as much as the students and school puts into keeping the garden center thriving, the greater community plays a huge roll as well.
“What’s cool about this Eastern Shore community is no one has ever said ‘no,’” Kelley says. “All of their projects are supported someway by someone in the community. It’s just a breath of fresh air to have this much support.”
Kelley said he’s not been teaching at Parkside long enough to see students who have graduated begin their careers, though many are in agricultural programs in college now.
“I’m waiting for them to come here and take over for me when their ready,” Kelley said with a laugh.