MECHANICSVILLE, Md. (Feb. 16, 2016) — A group of St. Mary’s County middle-schoolers now get a slam-bang introduction into the complex world of genetics by developing new varieties of dwarf tomatoes.
Students at Mother Catherine Academy were recently featured in a national gardening magazine for growing two varieties of the tomatoes as part of the Dwarf Tomato Project, a worldwide Internet challenge several hobbyist growers issued to create new varieties of the small fruits several years ago.
The student’s project is part of the independent Catholic school’s relatively new agriculture lab.
“It’s such a part of this area, the (farming) heritage, so we wanted to bring that here,” said middle school science teacher Sarah Gascon on Feb. 3 while sitting next to Jerry Spence, the school’s volunteer agricultural lab liaison.
Students at the school learn about plants in seventh grade and genetics in eighth, she said, so the lab clicks in nicely with school curriculum. Students in the school’s garden club will soon get another crack at growing dwarf varieties. This month they’re picking parent varieties to start with, Spence said, and they’d like to develop several homegrown varieties, including a yellow tomato that matches the school’s colors.
“We had an exceptional year to grow around here because of the rain,” Spence said.
The lab’s garden also produces other food the school donates to local food pantries or uses for its new cooking club, which is sponsored by a local restaurant.
Students in the garden club are also going to lead a multi-year tomato breeding project. The project will introduce students to the science and math involved in selectively breeding plants for specific traits.
Future plans include making more use of technology such as teaching students to use CAD software to plan improvements to the garden and spreadsheets and databases to collect and analyze data.
They’d also like to start a butterfly garden.
“We’re a Catholic school so we want to teach them about God’s creation,” Spence said.