ATLANTIC CITY - Robert Barrigher put down the small spade he had been using to dig weeds and picked up a tiny green object, the size of a small marble.
"What's this?" he asked.
"It's a grape tomato" Richard Stockton College instructor Bob Escheman said, " but don't ..."
Too late. Barrigher popped the tomato in his mouth, took a bite and realized it was nowhere near ripe enough to eat.
"Ugh," he said spitting it out. "That's awful."
"You have to wait until they're orange or red," Escheman said.
Another lesson learned at the Atlantic City High School community garden, where 22 students are working this summer with teachers and staff from Stockton to develop what they hope will be the first of several gardens at schools in the city.
The idea for the garden germinated with ACHS special education teacher Theresa Mansor, who in 2007 received a $10,000 grant from Toyota to start a horticulture therapy program for her students. She took over the school greenhouse and used seeds and plants to teach science, math and job skills.
This year, she and teachers Pete Cummins and Pam Daves expanded outdoors to a plot behind the school that houses rows of peppers, zucchini, corn, string beans, three kinds of tomatoes and rows of herbs. Students have mulched, planted, weeded, picked and eaten their handiwork, learning along the way about farming, cooking and nutrition.
"They've pulled some flowers and a couple of tomato plants with the weeds, but they're learning," Cummins said.
The special education students have an extended-year program, so they can devote the monthlong summer session to their gardening skills. Jia Bin Lin does not speak much, but he is an expert mulcher.
"He likes to work with tools," said Stockton professor Joe Rubenstein, who is helping develop the community gardens at other schools as part of a partnership project with the Atlantic City school district. New York Avenue and Sovereign Avenue schools are next on their list. Rubenstein said he would like to see the gardens generate enough produce for a farm market in Atlantic City.
The projects at the schools have been incorporated into Stockton curricula. Katie Anne Conway, an environmental science major, took Escheman's course in sustainable agriculture and is now working with the students on their garden.
"We're looking for ways to take what we learn into the community," she said.
Mansor would like to expand, adding blueberries and grapes, plus shrubbery and plants that could be donated to Habitat for Humanity for their renovated homes. Her vision includes adding benches and turning the land behind the school into a garden oasis.
She has had some general education students work in the greenhouse during the school year and would like to get more of them involved to make the greenhouse a working business that also could help fund the program.
"The gen-ed students came in, and my kids taught them how to plant," Mansor said. "It was so great for them get a chance to show their skills. I'm hoping with Stockton working with us, we can really get the community behind this."
Beyond school, Mansor is hoping some of her students will use their new skills to get jobs in landscaping or a garden supply store.
The cool, rainy weather in June put the garden a little behind schedule, but students have harvested green beans and a few zucchini thus far.
"Some of the students had never picked produce," Mansor said.
The summer session will end next week with a barbecue that will, of course, include lots of vegetables.
E-mail Diane D'Amico:
Garden wish list
Theresa Mansor said the garden could use the following items:
Seedling flats and pots