By Cate Lecuyer
BEVERLY — When Dick Harrison was a kid, his dad grew orchids.
"When I was a teenager, he brought me here," he said, standing in the Glen Urquhart School greenhouse he's spent the last six months renovating. "I was totally unimpressed with going to an orchid farm, but once I got here I was amazed."
Years later, when his daughter started going to the K-8 private school in Beverly Farms, he noticed the greenhouse was no longer in use. So he decided to fix it up.
"I can tell you the weeds were from the ground to the glass," he said, and it was filled with "stuff that was too good to throw away and not good enough to keep."
Now, one side of the 7,000-square-foot building is filled with seedlings that will grow into leeks and onions, eggplants and peppers, and other vegetables that will eventually be planted at Long Hill Farm by members of The Food Project, a nonprofit organization that engages young people in sustainable agriculture.
The other side will soon be clustered with children as they learn about everything from life cycles and photosynthesis to soil conservation and farming, science teacher Jen Mallette said.
The school had been thinking about renovating the greenhouse for the last couple of years "So students understand the whole process of where food comes from, from planting seeds to putting it on the table," said Raymond Nance, head of school.
But it wasn't until Harrison began volunteering that the project got started.
"We've had a lot of other parents and volunteers," he said. "For the past couple weekends, there's been a bunch of dads here."
They've installed new water and electricity, fixed the rafters, put up safety screens on the light-reflecting windows, and poured 300 tons of gravel on the ground. Many of the materials were donated, and overall the project cost a minimal $25,000.
"Things are so much more valuable when you have the blood and sweat that go into it," Harrison said.
Via the partnership with The Food Project, fifth-graders, who are learning about "the ground" will be taught about the soil for growing plants. The sixth-graders are studying "people," so they'll focus on how people help seeds grow, and the seventh-graders might learn about the different roles humans have within the food system for their chapter on "who I am."
Mallette said she envisions tying the greenhouse into many lesson plans and projects like growing herbs to learn about colonial times, building big messy science projects like a stream bed and working with the state to raise beetles that are a natural predator of purple loosestrife, an invasive plant. They're also thinking of building an aquaponic system with water plants and fish and forming partnerships with local public schools.
"It really opens up a lot of opportunities," Mallette said.