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Going organic
Montessori students finalists in Ga. science competition
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Newton County residents who tend their own garden may want to visit the Montessori School of Covington and ask its middle-school students for tips on how to grow the largest, healthiest fruits and vegetables.

During their gardening class last semester, the seventh-graders learned that natural compost is both a healthier and more effective fertilizer than any chemical fertilizers, herbicides or pesticides. They discovered the key to healthy, productive soil is the number of free-living nematodes it contains.

A nematode is a microscopic worm that feeds on organic matter in soil, like bacteria, algae and fungi, which accelerates the decomposition process and recycles minerals and nutrients into the soil, making them more accessible to plants. Compost, things like yard waste and food scraps, promotes the reproduction of nematodes, while synthetic fertilizers, which contain high levels of nitrogen, actually kill microorganisms.

Georgia Perimeter College Instructor Mac Gay studied the organic garden in Clark’s Grove and congratulated the students on the high-nematode levels in their plots.

Although garden rules specify that residents must use organic gardening techniques, students noticed studied other plots and noticed signs of synthetic fertilizers.

“We saw the granules of the fertilizer,” student Julia Marshall said.

They also realized that they were the only ones using compost from the community bins. After Gay’s presentation, the class decided it wanted to compare nematode levels in its beds to those in other garden beds, as well as a sample from a forest.

The results were startling. The students collected soil samples from five different areas: their organically gardened plot, a synthetically gardened plot, a plot which had never been gardened, a plot grown over with weeds and soil from a forest. They then filtered the microorganisms out of soil and studied and counted them under microscopes.

The never gardened plot sample had two nematodes, the synthetic plot had seven nematodes, the weedy plot had 14 and the tree had 72.

The students’ organic plot sample had 806 nematodes. Student Claire Vinson said she was surprised their plot had so many more than nematodes than the sample from the wooded area. She said it could be an anomaly so the students will take more samples to increase the sample size and make it statistically significant.

The students’ research was so compelling they were named one of 10 statewide finalists invited to the 2010 Youth Environmental Symposium. The Georgia Conservancy selected the Covington Montessori project from among several dozen entries from public and private middle and high schools around the state.

“”We’re really excited. There so many groups that entered,” student Madeline McCanless said.

Teacher Sara Vinson said she’s had her eye on the YES contest for the last few years, but in the past projects usually focused on recycling efforts and cleaning up littering.

“This time we had a concrete science project, and organic gardening is a big topic now. The years I taught and gardened with students and worked with community gardens really drove it home,” Vinson said.

One of the most important aspects of the YES contest is community education. The students are going to be presenting their research to their fellow students on Feb. 23, parents and the local public on Feb. 25 at 2 p.m. at Clark’s Grove and in Atlanta at the symposium on Feb. 26 at Zoo Atlanta. For the symposium presentation the students are preparing a video and a skit to engage the audience in a creative way.

The study will also be conducted into future seventh grade curriculums at the Montessori School of Covington.

Finally, the students will help lead an organic gardening class in the spring, and they hope the gardeners in Clark’s Grove will take notice.

“Students hope that increasing gardeners’ awareness of a healthy soil ecosystem will encourage gardeners to begin gardening organically,” Vinson wrote in the project application. “The project also benefits the school because it lends weight to the idea that organic gardening is a worthwhile pursuit and, therefore, increases student enthusiasm for organic gardening.”

In addition to the pure science, the students beautiful looking and tasty carrots, cucumbers, lettuce, rapini and Swiss chard may change people’s minds.