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Operation Spudnik

The tired team surveys its first planting. (L-R Sherrill Munn, Kyle Tenhoeve, Alex Marquis, Cole Beauguess, Rose Marquis, Jazmine Arias, Sara Marquis, Jillian O’Connor, Mary Burke, Ryan and Jack Burke-Dickson)

Would you survive being stranded on Mars? Sixteen middle and high school students would. In a joint program at All Saints Episcopal and Broadview Baptist churches, both in Sunderland, these teens learned how.
    Master Gardener Sherrill Munn, who is youth leader at both churches, took the example of Matt Damon in The Martian to teach high schoolers gardening from the soil up. He played Survival Technical Advisor, Mars Mission Control in the program designed with Mary Burke of All Saints.
    The teens applied lessons in soil structure, biomass, residues and by-products, humus and pH in making their own soil, connecting the popular movie with real-life gardening that they can do at home. For their adventure in agriculture, each grower planted five fingerling potatoes in each of 18 50-quart grow bags. In separate bags, they planted string beans as a companion crop.
    Survival Technical Advisor Munn emphasized organic and sustainable gardening in teaching careful and proper use of fertilizers and soil conditioners, emphasizing prevention of runoff and ground and water pollution. The growers learned integrated pest management to protect plants against disease and insects with the least environmental impact. They also learned which insects not to squash.
    The teens harvested more than 30 pounds of fingerling potatoes.
    Andrew Mandile raised the largest volume by weight. Second place was a tie between the team of Alex ­Marquis and Cole Beauguess and Ryan Burke-Dickson. Sara Marquis earned third place.
    Their potatoes were served as the centerpiece of a picnic celebrating their accomplishments. Using store-bought potatoes, Burke conducted a taste test to demonstrate the benefits of growing one’s own food. Homegrown spuds won the taste test.
    The remainder of the potatoes were donated to All Saints’ Heart F.E.L.T. (Filling Empty Tummies), a backpack program to feed children on the weekends when they often go hungry.
    The growers voted to continue Operation Spudnik for next season and to include other vegetables.

–Mary Ann Munn, Sunderland