WEST PARIS — One hundred years from now a pear tree planted in the backyard of the Agnes Gray Elementary School might still be bearing fruit for the children of the community.
“This is your tree now,“ Richard Hodges, manager of the ReTreeUS program said to an enthusiastic group of third grade students and teachers as the orchard’s first fruit tree – a Bartlett pear tree – was put in the ground on the morning of May 7.
“I think growing fruit trees and your own food is one of the most important things you can do,” Hodges told the students.
Because of his organization’s wish to promote an environmentally sustainable, socially just, food system, coupled with a desire to educate children about the process, Hodges said he was inspired to grow orchards of fruit trees in schools throughout Maine.
Nine Maine schools, including the Agnes Gray Elementary School, are receiving educational orchards with the support from the nonprofit program, ReTreeUS. In total, 168 well-established fruit trees will be planted this May – a mix of apple, peach, pear, and plum.
Like a modern day “Johnny Appleseed,” Hodges has been planting fruit orchards at schools throughout the state for the past five years. In addition to the Agnes Gray Elementary School, Poland Community School in Poland and Dunn Elementary School in New Gloucester are other local recipients.
ReTreeUS will also be planting orchards at Wolfe’s Neck Center for Agriculture and the Environment in collaboration with a sustainability project in Patten.
Hodges led each of the school’s classes in educational lessons that included skills from across the curriculum such as science and mathematics.
He first urged them to do as he did when he became interested in growing fruit trees – read about what interests them. “If you’re really interested in something, read about it.”
The first step in the planting process was to design the orchard. Because pear trees grow the tallest, they should be planted in the back of he orchard and peach trees up front be
cause they are small. Then they must be spaced correctly so that others don’t get too much shade, he said.
“The design part is really important,” Hodges said. “because this is what your orchard will look like for at least 100 years.”
He told the students that there are many fruit trees in Maine that live longer than 100 years, some apple trees have been found to be 300 years or older.
One of the issues with orchards is protection from deer’s and with a “backyard” such as the one at Agnes Gray which back up to woods and mountains, protection from deer is essential. Hodges said he will return to the school later to put up protection against deer.
Hodges provided step by step instructions as classes came out to help. The students learned how to dig holes in a pie formation for the trees, and learned never to “mix ha
nds and shovels.” In order to help the tree take root, compost is essential as is returning the dug sod to the hole and placing wood chips on top, followed by a good soaking of water, he said.
Once completed, the orchard is expected to add another dimension to the school’s backyard which has become an outdoor learning center for the students.