It may take 10 years to see the final product, but garden club students at Mother Catherine Academy are working toward creating a tomato variety unique to the school and aptly named the MCA tomato.
About 11 students have been working since March on the MCA tomato project, where they are learning to crossbreed significantly different varieties of parent tomato plants in an attempt to create a dwarf or standard cherry-sized tomato with a sweet flavor that students rate as best. The new tomato variety would have a yellow or orange color to represent one of the school colors, which are blue and gold.
Sophia Williams, 12, a member of the school’s garden club, said the project involves taking two breeds of tomatoes and crossing them to make new breeds.
Crossbreeding the significantly different parent varieties, explained volunteer Jerry Spence, allows students to see the genetic diversity of the species and produce a drastically diverse generation of small tomatoes to sample.
Crossing the significantly different parents and creating the hybrid tomato represent the first two goals of the project. The third goal, Spence explained, would be to create a dwarf yellow or orange beefsteak tomato with flavor characteristics rated best by parents and the community, although the rating system has yet to be determined.
Williams said not only is she learning science, like the different parts of tomatoes and the process of growing them, but she is also learning from a religious perspective. She said she is able to see how God makes it all happen and how people can help with the process by “making a new kind of creation from God’s original creation.”
When it comes to making a new kind of tomato, Williams said it’s no cake walk. She said it takes delicate hands and it’s a “rigorous process.” That process won’t be completed until long after the incoming seventh-grader has graduated from the school.
The entire process of creating a new plant hybrid, according to Spence, a local farmer and planner with the Charles Soil Conservation District, can take about 10 years for amateur gardeners. It’s not just a matter of having a successful cross but getting the seeds to consistently produce the desired tomato variety.
Williams said that will take time. She said it also takes time and patience to hand-pollinate, which is the method the club is using. It takes gentle hands and even then it’s not certain it will take, she said, explaining there is no way to determine if a plant was already pollinated before the student attempt. Williams said there are also many other factors that can cause an attempt to fail.
Spence said during the process participants are learning about plant biology, genetics, the careful process of hand pollination and about gardening, among other things.
“It’s amazing how much you can do with just your bare hands and what God provides for you,” Williams said.
So far, the club has had four successful tomato hybrids, which include a cross between Dwarf Sweet Sue and Galina, two successes from crossing a Dwarf Jade Beauty and Blush, and a success with a cross between a Sean’s Yellow Dwarf and Kellogg’s Breakfast.
Spence said the club is working with a consultant from North Carolina, Craig LeHoullier, who helped create the dwarf varieties the club is using.
With the successful attempts, Spence said students are able to see what traits are exhibited in the offspring and if those genetic traits are recessive or dominant.
The garden/agriculture lab and the garden club at the school, Spence said, help to pique student interest in science and gardening and provide an “opportunity to take real-world knowledge and apply it.”
The garden began in the 2014-2015 school year, the last year the school was Mother Catherine Spalding School, before closing and re-opening with an altered name as an independent Catholic school.
Aside from tomatoes, students are growing cucumbers, peppers, pumpkins and gourds, popcorn and flowers.
Angie Wathen, a parent volunteer with the club and certified horticulturist, said she can see the tomato project and the garden club in general growing with the school. She said she sees students are “realizing gardening can be as tedious as you’d like it to be, or as enjoyable.”
The club meets from February through October. During the school year, the club meets after classes end every other week. Many of the club members are coming out in the summer on occasion to work in the garden, which she said tells her that the students are interested and want to be there.
Wathen said students are able to see and taste the fruits of their labor. Many of those fruits — and vegetables — are shared with the community through local food pantries, and Girl Scouts are using the garden for a pickle project.
Wathen said as the club grows, she, Spence and teacher Sarah Gascon are looking for different ways to incorporate the club in other school and community events.
Williams said she would like to see participation grow too. “With more hands to help, we can do so much more,” the student said.