Lyseth Elementary School is about to establish an educational school orchard. On Wednesday, Oct. 4, students will help plant about a dozen apple trees provided by a nonprofit called ReTreeUS, and participate in an introductory lesson from the organization.
The event will begin at 9:30 a.m. The students first will be engaged in a lesson that covers the conditions needed for fruit trees, decomposition, fractions, tree genetics and biology, grafting and more. They’ll then get instruction on how to plant the trees and safety guidelines they must follow during planting. Students will then be digging the holes, mixing in compost, planting the trees, mulching around the trees and watering.
The new orchard will be planted on the north side of the building in a large alcove referred to as “Moose Alcove” due to the wooden moose watching over the school’s garden, said Lyseth garden teacher Kevin Gunderson.
“All 500 of our students, pre-K through 5th grade, will use this orchard to learn about life cycles, seasonal changes, tree identification, pollination, photosynthesis and food systems,”
Gunderson said. “This is absolutely a legacy project, and I hope these trees will be here to benefit the Lyseth community for many years to come.”
ReTreeUS, with offices in Maine and New Hampshire, is a nonprofit whose mission is to promote an environmentally sustainable, socially just food system through education, practical resources, and mentorship. The organization does that by planting orchards in schools and providing educational programs that empower people to grow their own food and be healthy environmental stewards.
Shelley Kruszewski, the organization’s program coordinator, said, “ReTreeUS is now in our 11th year of planting educational orchards in schools and with community partners, and we are planning to plant our 100th orchard in the fall of 2024. Lyseth will be orchard number 89. All but 10 of those are in Maine.” Each orchard serves as an engaging outdoor classroom.
The Lyseth orchard will be the second ReTreeUS orchard planted at Portland’s public schools. Kruszewski said one was planted at Lyman Moore Middle School in 2019. A third orchard is planned for Rowe Elementary School, with a planting date still to be determined.
The Lyseth and Rowe projects – and also one at Westbrook Middle School – are supported by TD Bank and the Arbor Day Foundation through their Green Space Grant program, Kruszewski said. The grant program supports innovative urban greening and tree planting projects in pursuit of environmental equity.
Gunderson said members of the school’s Lyseth Greening Committee, an organization of parents and teacher volunteers, applied to the orchard program last year. ReTreeUS plants apple, pear and peach trees. In Lyseth’s case, Gunderson said, “Apples trees were chosen because apples are delicious.”
As the school’s garden teacher, he will be the orchard’s official caretaker. “But of course students will also be involved, learning about responsibility through maintaining our garden spaces,” he said. “Weeding and watering, monitoring growth, and observing the changes brought about by pollination will be the first lessons taught using the orchard.”
Kruszewski said apple trees typically take four to five years to produce apples for picking. However, Gunderson said the orchards will provide plenty of learning opportunities even before then. “Everything in our garden is observed by students from seed to fruit,” Gunderson said. “Whatever stage of life our plants may be in, it is most useful to have a variety on display to show which plants go through which stages at different times of the year, and to understand the amount of time and effort required to grow the food we all consume.”
When the apples are ready for picking, he said, “students will be able to taste test the fruits of their labor, but other potential options include donating food to those that are in need, or providing a supply for our school lunches.”
Gunderson predicts the small orchard will have a far-reaching impact. “For me, this orchard is a living representation of the health of our community,’” he said. “A healthy, long-lived orchard will only be possible if many people – of all ages – come together and work toward a common cause. If we can achieve our goal of producing healthy food from our orchard, that means we have a healthy school; if we have a healthy school, then we have a healthy community, with caring, responsible future citizens. All of that from just a few trees.”
Photo: Photo of tree planting from ReTreeUS website.
The Portland Public Schools is Maine’s largest school district, with approximately 6,500 students, and is also the most diverse. About one-third of the district’s students come from homes where languages other than English are spoken—a total of more than 50 languages. 49.8 percent of the district’s students are white and 50.2 percent are students of color. Approximately half of PPS students qualify for free or reduced-price school meals.