The biggest problem with school gardens is not bugs or rain, it's summer vacation.

Just when crops start to need the most attention, the school year ends, leaving plants to languish. It takes a core group of volunteers willing to come in over the summer to keep them going.

Jessica Cuevas teaches science at the William H. Ross School in Margate, but has spent two or three days a week this summer at the Eugene Tighe School, where she oversees the district garden. She is not paid, and the produce harvested is sold at the city farm market to raise money for next year's crop and to support the Community Food Bank's Southern Branch in Egg Harbor Township.

Each year students take their proceeds to ShopRite and buy the10 most popular foods the Food Bank needs.

"Last year we made $4,000," said Juliette Loftus, 10. "We bought out all the peanut butter at ShopRite."

"We had like 20 carts filled," Megan Dougherty, 10, said.

Cuevas said more than 100 students have volunteered at the garden, but there is a core group, including Loftus and Dougherty, who have come out regularly during the summer.

Students said they like planting and selling the produce, and have tasted vegetables they never even heard of before.

"Like rainbow swiss chard," said Sophia Ruh, 10, who liked it.

Maya Swift, 10, said her favorites are the tomatoes, but Dougherty said she still does not like eggplant.

Cuevas said the garden is an educational project, even during the summer.

"It's so nice over the summer because there are no other classes and I don't have to rush to be done at a certain time," she said, as she and about a dozen volunteers prepared beds for fall and winter crops they hope to keep going through December. "They can ask all the questions they want, and I have time to answer them all."

Parent Karen Tripician of Longport has brought her three sons, Kai, Nalu and Kannon almost every week, especially since this year Hurricane Sandy ruined her yard so she couldn't plant her own garden.

"The kids are willing to at least try a new food if they've grown it," she said. "And it's a nice activity for the kids in the summer, to get them out of the house early."

The students generally work on Wednesdays from 9 to 10:30 a.m., then sell their harvest at the Margate farm market on Thursday. Cuevas said it's very popular and they generally sell out early. She also comes a couple times per week on her own to do maintenance and prepare work for the students.

Richard Stockton College's garden on the Galloway Township campus is really more of an experimental mini-farm that is in its first full year of operation. Maintained almost exclusively by volunteer students, it has provided weekly produce to staff, who pay a nominal fee each week for a bag of whatever has been harvested A recent week included a variety of heirloom tomatoes, peppers, zucchini, eggplant, cucumbers and a little okra.

"It really is a student-run project," said professor Patrick Hossay, who oversees the farm but admits he's had little to do. "For the first year, when you really don't know what you're doing, and you don't know the soil that well, they've done very well."

The farm site has no running water or electricity, so students built a water-collection system. The organic farm takes a lot of maintenance, and student Caitlin Clarke, of New Gretna, a Stockton student and farm manager, admits there were days when the caterpillars and stink bugs really tempted her to run out for some insecticide. But she didn't and the crops survived.

Hossay said about 100 students have worked on the farm, with about a half-dozen acting as leaders. He said the farm needs daily attention and has been getting it, thanks to the volunteers. Clarke receives a stipend, but the student workers are volunteers.

"This wouldn't exist without them," he said.

Allie Glasser, of Galloway Township, an environmental science major, comes four days a week just because it's fun and she gets to take some vegetables home.

"It was really rewarding to put seeds in the ground and watch them come up," she said. "I've grown things at home, but this is different, It's so much larger and there are more things to worry about."

Keith Mulligan, of Tabernacle, also comes out almost every morning before going to work because he just wanted the experience of working on a farm. He collected a small bag of vegetables before heading out, but not for himself.

"I'll give them to my mom," he said.

Contact Diane D'Amico:

609-272-7241