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A greenhouse where learning grows

In the gold-tinted light of a greenhouse tucked behind Eagle Point High School, a teenager is surrounded by leaves.

The tomato plants in front of him are too young to bear the rich red fruit they’ll later sprout. Several different varieties are lined up in orderly rows: Early Girls, Sweet 100s and Big Boys.

Andrew Gmirkin recites their names with an ease that comes from years of experience tending, watering and waiting. The high school senior has been working back here since he was a sophomore, when he took his first botany class.

Working with plants and joining Future Farmers of America, he says, helped him not only find his career passion, but also changed his experience in school.

“Learning about germination rates taught me more about math than I ever learned in a classroom,” he says.

Soon, he is joined by a current batch of Botany 1 students, under the direction of Curtis North, agricultural science teacher. They’re here to pinch off the terminal buds at the end of the tomato plant stems, which will allow them to flower healthily and produce more fruit.

This is an example of what the the U.S. Department of Education calls Career and Technical Education — learning that can help guide children to a vocation after high school graduation.

North echoes Gmirkin’s opinion: that getting out in a workspace and learning with your fingers is a complement to the classroom. Most of his students who take vocational classes come back for more, he says.

“(Students) stick around because they enjoy it, learning science in a real-life situation,” North says.

The real-life learning also yields another byproduct in the spring: real-life cash, which comes through the plant sales that supplement the greenhouse budgets.

Students in North’s botany classes learn customer service and interpersonal skills by running the sale, which will happen over the three days prior to Mother’s Day (May 10-12). North says last year the sale brought in $35,000.

But Eagle Point’s gardening program isn’t an isolated effort; it is deeply rooted in community relationships. North is part of a consortium of teachers who also lead horticulture programs at Phoenix, Crater and Rogue River high schools.

The group has also attracted the support of local gardening clubs.

The Medford Garden Club, for example, will hold a sale on Saturday to raise money for the horticulture programs. Carolyn Stieber, a club member from Eagle Point, connected with North.

“A lot of us are educators,” she says. “I think there’s a concern about supporting horticulture education ... about who will be growing our food in a few years.”

Gmirkin may be part of that community as the incoming FFA Oregon president, and as an aspiring spokesperson for an ag company. He says he entered high school thinking of a career as a police officer.

“Being part of FFA and taking ag classes showed me what I want to do with my life,” he says.

Medford Garden Club’s plant sale will run from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday, April 28, in the parking lot of Umpqua bank, 1211 E. McAndrews Road, Medford.

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Kaylee Tornay at ktornay@rosebudmedia.com or 541-776-4497. Follow her on Twitter @ka_tornay.

Jamie Lusch / Mail Tribune Eagle Point High School students work with tomato plants in preparation for the Eagle Point High School plant sale.
Jamie Lusch / Mail Tribune Tyler Balero, 16, waters tomato plants in preparation for the Eagle Point High School plant sale.