Ann Fish Special to the News & Record
Devoted customers have for years enjoyed buying their spring plants from the student greenhouse at McMichael and Rockingham County High Schools. One annual sale will most likely be back in bloom by the middle of the month, and RCHS will begin selling April 19, organizers said.
Both Mo Bell, McMichael’s agriculture teacher, and Rosalina Webster at RCHS say the danger of frost will have passed by then and the sale can begin.
While the district’s schools were shut down intermittently over the past two years due to COVID-19, McMichael’s greenhouses never actually closed, Bell said.
“We had volunteers in the community who came in and helped us and we still had our spring sales both years,” he said.
Every day now, customers call eager to know when the plants will be available, Bell said, and he hopes he can oblige by April 19.
But this year, the weather has meant opening greenhouses later due to “the fear of frost,” he noted. He urged prospective customers to call 336-427-5165 or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org and he will confirm the sale date by April 19.
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Webster plans to open her greenhouses April 19 since the risk of plant-killing frost is nearly nil by then. Patrons will be able to shop for pants during regular school hours on weekdays and from 9 am to 1 pm on Saturdays through May 31, she said.
A native of Martin County, Bell said the schools were grateful to the volunteers who came almost daily to help him coax seedlings along and keep the greenhouse program alive.
Among them: retired football coach Bill Scheib of Mayodan, known for planting a large community garden years ago. That’s how the two agriculturists met. When COVID kept students away from campus, Scheib and others helped Bell cultivate and ready the plants for the annual sale.
“With their help and consistent volunteering times, we grew just as many plants as if I had the students here at the school,” said Bell, who has taught at McMichael for 19 years. Those volunteers also sold plants every Saturday for a couple of months when students couldn’t.
When Bell, a NC A&T graduate, first arrived at McMichael, William Oliver and Lynn Knight had already grown the plant sale program as a huge part of the school’s hands-on learning initiatives. The program has thrived for more than 20 years and this year Bell said he is happy to welcome his agriculture students back and help them get their hands back in the soil.
“They were excited to come back, see their friends and do hands-on activities in the greenhouses,” he said.
As in most years past, the young agriculturists and their teacher are offering tomatoes (including several varieties from other growers) and the “hottest peppers in the world,” Bell said, noting, “All our vegetables are organically grown.”
Blooming beauties for sale will include different varieties of geraniums, coleus, petunias, hanging baskets and “other flowers the community (will have to) see to believe,” he said.
Prices range from $4 for geraniums to $50 for the largest hanging basket. Bedding plants, such as top seller purple hearts, start at $5.
Proceeds from the sale will allow Bell to purchase more supplies to establish next year’s plants, he said. Once or twice a year, the agriculture class uses some of the funds for cookouts to reward their efforts, Bell said.
Bell’s students have used their training in the greenhouses to springboard into careers in agriculture, he said, explaining many have gone on to work at landscaping companies.
Throughout the year, Bell expands students’ knowledge by taking them to the NC State Fair to visit the agriculture exhibits and talk with long-time growers about the secrets to their success. Pupils also attend NC A&T’s Agricultural Literacy Festival each year to learn about different agriculture majors offered by the university.
Some enroll at A&T, while others choose ag programs at Rockingham Community College, Bell said.
Webster has been at RCHS for the past three years. During the two-year shutdown, she also tried to keep her school’s plant sales alive.
“It was a challenge to be there by yourself,” she said. But most of her sales were to school staff, family and friends because public access to the school was limited by the pandemic.
However, with students now back in the classroom, Webster has expanded the greenhouse program and students are enjoying learning about plant care, she said.
Webster makes a key focus of her teaching relating plants to healthy eating habits. Her students grow sweet potatoes, then bake them into healthy sweet potato dishes. They also eat fresh yellow watermelons in their classroom as a special treat.
“They loved it,” Webster said.
She shows students how to toss the lettuces they are growing in with other fresh vegetables to create salads and notes some students like to eat sweet peppers right off the plants.
Students also enjoy growing strawberries in gutters they purchase from Lowe’s and convert to plant beds.
“They can’t wait to eat them,” Webster said, adding they “love making pancakes and putting fresh strawberries on top.”
Right now, Webster’s students are in the process of replanting many older vegetable plants.
The overwhelming majority of her students love being back at school — “just getting over the COVID restrictions,” Webster said, noting her agriculture class means they get a break from sitting in a classroom for 90 minutes at a time.
“They enjoy getting outdoors and working in the raised beds, or in the greenhouse, or pruning shrubs around the school,” she said. “We do a little bit of everything.”
Since the first of year, they have been especially busy planting several types of tomatoes, peppers, watermelons, cantaloupes, squash, cucumbers, succulents, geraniums, zinnias, fuchsia and ferns.
Prices range from $2 for annuals to $30 for ferns.
The Macho fern was a particularly popular seller last year, Webster said.
“They grow really big and look almost prehistoric,” Webster said, explaining the most popular features are succulents and vegetables.
Webster started out teaching as a substitute in Bell’s ag classes. Next, she taught public safety at Reidsville High School and then transferred to the ag teaching post at RCHS.
“It is a passion,” she said, noting she was very active in the Future Farmers of America club at Reidsville High School, where she graduated in 1987.
“I grew up on a farm in the Williamsburg community,” Webster said. “It’s very important to me for people to know how to grow their own food, especially in the uncertain times we live in.”