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Culinary students grow gardens and awareness

Would you know a carrot from a radish if the two were growing side by side in the ground?

Do you know which end of a garlic clove sprouts when planted?

Neither did many students at the International Culinary School at The Art Institute of Charlotte.

That just didn't seem right, so these aspiring chefs and restaurant managers did what many people are doing in backyards across the country: They planted a garden.

They hope the first thing to grow there will be awareness.

It's about “knowing that food is not coming off a truck,” said Marla Thurman, who submitted the students' proposal for a garden to the Art Institute's president. “Someone has got to do the work.”

Thurman had help with the project. Four other students came up with the idea for a garden after working as volunteers in New Orleans through an organization called Share Our Strength.

They helped revitalize a blighted urban area by building a garden at elementary schools there. When they returned, they decided they wanted a culinary garden at their own school.

“They came back with a passion for gardening,” Thurman said.

The students already had a small plot of tomatoes, eggplants and chili peppers growing behind the school. They have helped illustrate the difference between store-bought and homegrown foods.

“I never realized they would be so flavorful,” Thurman said. “I catch people out here snacking on them.”

The new garden is bigger, and organic. They called on Don Rosenberg of Instant Organic Gardens to help. About 20 students showed up recently to till, plant and learn.

They assembled six 3-by-16-foot prefabricated raised beds on a little-used sand volleyball court.

They filled the raised beds with compost and sand. The mix has been specially formulated to reduce weed seeds. Worm castings are mixed in as fertilizer.

The other special feature of the winter garden is that the plants are heirloom varieties that were popular years ago for their flavor or history.

Broccoli, turnips, spinach, cabbages, shallots, beets, turnips, lettuces, kohlrabi and Brussels sprouts are among the cool-season crops they selected. They also chose Swiss chard with vibrantly colorful stems.

Many commercial crops today are chosen for characteristics other than flavor, such as a more perfect appearance or high yield.

Schools and restaurants are among the institutions that most often contact Rosenberg for help building a garden. He's even more thrilled when families contact him to build a backyard garden.

In 1945, Americans grew maybe 40percent of the produce they ate, according to his research. Today he estimates that number is probably closer to 1percent.

He takes pride in helping to reverse that trend.

Gardens, he said, teach their children where food comes from. What's more important, they can put families closer to the source of food and closer to each other.

“I have memories of shelling peas with my grandfather,” he said. “They're creating memories with their children.”