Curtis Bay students farm under water tower

HOW CHILDREN'S GARDEN GROWS

June 11, 1991|By Rafael Alvarez

Vegetables are beginning to sprout on a hilltop farm high above Baltimore.

Just beyond the shadow of a landmark water tank adorned with colossal arches and pillars, corn and zucchini and tomatoes and pumpkins are spreading out in a Curtis Bay victory crop, teaching children that hard work can bring good things from the earth.

"This is for self-esteem: You grow something from a seed, stick it in the ground, take care of it, it turns out to be a radish and you take it home and eat it," said George "Lee" Logue, principal of an elementary school that shares the steep hill with the water tank and the crops. "For some of these kids, this garden is the first success they have ever had in school."

Success was measured last year in grocery bags teeming with tomatoes and two dozen kids willing to come to school all summer long to weed and water and sit in a classroom to learn about dirt and bugs.

"It was fun," said Ginger Tuttle, a fifth-grader. "We grew hot peppers too. I don't like hot peppers, but my brother ate 'em."

The story of the nearly one-acre tract on the hill at Filbert and Prospect avenues -- long, tilled rows of vegetables and 40 individual garden boxes assigned to each student -- involves corporate executives, irrigation from the corner fire hydrant, the fabulous Curtis Bay water tank and the lost youth of Lee Logue.

"I wanted the [project] close to the school, but when I show up here on Monday mornings, there are beer bottles all over the place. A lot of partying goes on around here on the weekends. Our grounds are lovely for a city school, but a garden wouldn't last here," Mr. Logue said. "And I kept looking over at this water tank, and I've always admired it because it's very unique, and it dawned on me: I've never seen anybody over on the tower lot. It's a very secure place; it's locked up behind a fence."

When he first asked the city water department for permission to use the lot last year, they refused.

Mr. Logue wound up talking to Nick Stevens, the man responsible for security at the water tank; and it came out that 30 years ago, the men were friends and co-workers in the municipal water department before losing track of one another. Mr. Stevens decided it would be OK for the students to use the land, affirming Mr. Logue's belief that old friendships pay dividends. That's when the executives rolled up their white shirt sleeves and put their hands in the soil.

Curtis Bay Elementary School is one of several city public schools involved in partnership programs with private business, in this case a neighbor in the heavily industrial community, SCM Chemicals.

Volunteers from the international company, which primarily turns ore into the pigment titanium dioxide used as a whitener in everything from paint to toothpaste, help Curtis Bay students with math, science, aluminum recycling, and gardening.

The company spends thousands of dollars for top soil, fertilizer, cow manure, seeds, the lumber to build the individual garden boxes, and fast-food lunches for the students every time they are out working the farm.

Clarence Ridgely runs the project for SCM -- which is interested in the elementary school's science-based curriculum -- and is assisted by Richard Wells.

The company hopes to attract future employees from the student body.

"We help them out and make sure that every kid grows something," said Mr. Ridgely. "Anybody can do it, but some of the kids are naturals, you know. They're better weeders. You have to put the work into it. When you're growing plants, you can't make up the ground you've lost" if you don't pay attention at the start of the growing season.

Mr. Ridgely makes sure that many of the students selected from the 200 who want to participate are children with behavior and discipline problems.

He believes the project gives these young people the kind of positive adult attention they don't get anywhere else.

"They've had trouble working with each other before this, and you've got to work with each other in a garden," he said. "The teachers tend to not want the problem kids in the program but I've found that they're the ones who respond the most to the discipline of it."

And, he said, "There's nothing better than a tomato right off the vine, and you've got a salt shaker waiting."

The Filbert Avenue site is a perfect one for growing things: It sits way above sea level with plenty of unobstructed sun, can be drenched whenever necessary with a river of water available from a corner fire hydrant, that draws from the four million gallons stored in the Curtis Bay water tank, and lies on land that supported a dairy farm in the first half of the century.

The metal tank, which in 1930 replaced a black iron water tower built in 1893, was adorned in 1932 with a brick and masonry facade, said at the time to be "the most beautiful structure ever built by the Public Improvement Commission."

Designed by city architect Frank O. Heyder and erected for $44,989, the tank's Romanesque skirt of bricks can be for seen 20 miles down the Chesapeake, with 24 pillars and 24 panels depicted in twenty changing shades of masonry from light tan to clay brown.

"Neither the coloring in the base or the cornice has ever been tried before," said Mr. Heyder at the time, a man who was fascinated by cathedrals and domes and had more than 3,500 books on the subject.

If exposure to beauty helps good things grow, the water tank gives the children at Curtis Bay Elementary an edge on back-yard vegetable gardeners throughout the city.

The fruit of their labor will be for sale at the water tank just before school starts next fall when they take the harvest to market.

Asked what makes growing vegetables fun, fifth-grader Robert Campbell said, "One day it's not there, and the next day it is."

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