For four years, a small greenhouse sat forgotten near the running track at Tortolita Middle School.

Instead of plump tomatoes and flowering squash vines, it housed unwanted school desks and broken pots.

It was "a dump," according to Daniel Benavides, a seventh-grade student in Ms. Kerr's class.

But that was before he and his classmates - Kerr's six special education students - cleaned it up. They evicted a hairy tarantula and a squatting stray cat from the place. They ushered in leafy life instead, and named their spot "The Bloomin' Patch."

"I don't think they ever thought this was going to happen," said Kim Blatcher, a teacher's aide, gazing at about 250 growing plants.

The greenhouse is this batch of students' project for learning job skills. Past projects have included cleaning the cafeteria, recycling cans and putting in hours at Bashas' Supermarket.

"I think a problem with other projects is that there was nothing to learn after a little while," Kerr said. "It was the same thing over and over."

The Bloomin' Patch is nothing if not varied.

The class's greenhouse has a salsa garden with cilantro, tomatoes and peppers that the students eventually will harvest, chop, blend, and take home in jars as homemade sauce.

It has a pumpkin garden, a squash garden, a salad garden (lettuce and tomatoes), and a garden for an upcoming Southern-style class feast with okra, collard greens, and pickled cucumbers.

The students each have private patches for coaxing the growth of vegetables they have particular affinities for - in Benavides' case, peppers.

"I love hot stuff," he said.

Two months after the cat eviction, Benavides' fiery foodstuff is thriving. But when he and his classmates think back to the beginning of The Bloomin' Patch, they know they have a lot more to be proud of than just making their gardens grow.

Back in early October, in oppressive heat, Kerr's students hurried back and forth, delivering loads of greenhouse-stored junk to the trash bin.

"For the first two weeks, we were out there four or five hours a day," Kerr said.

Then there were rocks to be raked, supplies to be organized, and suspicious-looking wall holes to be taped up where the greenhouses' squatting stray cat probably performed breaking and entering.

A substantial pile of bricks out back seemed perfect for framing garden beds, except that the pile was out back. So Ms. Kerr's students put on their gloves, flexed their muscles and relocated the pile two bricks at a time.

How many bricks does it take to frame all the vegetable gardens at The Bloomin' Patch?

"More than we could count," Benavides said.

Finally, though, the students found their reward in a trip to Wal-Mart to select seed packets. Hidden in that adventure were lessons about being thrifty and making purchases at checkout counters.

Back at The Bloomin' Patch, the lessons are endless - not only for the students, but also for the teacher's aides and for Kerr, who does not claim a green thumb.

Lesson No. 1: If you water a seedling pepper plant as generously as you water a strapping head of lettuce, the seedling may drown.

Lesson No. 2: If you pull up a plant with its tangle of roots intact, chances are good that it will stand up straight in its new bed, and that it will survive its transplant.

Lesson No. 3: You won't hurt a plant just by handling it, and every student in Ms. Kerr's class is capable of nurturing a tender new sprig of life.

"They tend to be more afraid to do things than other people," Kerr said. "They tend to be babied because of that."

And just when the students start feeling like pros at handling tender sprigs, there will be produce to handle.

Dill will need to be hung out to try, and the opportunities for picking vegetables will be many. If the harvest is good, the class plans to open a farmer's market. Proceeds will go toward Christmas presents for the class's adopted low-income family.

Two weeks ago, the students sampled their first produce.

They chopped homegrown lettuce, pepper and chives for a salad, and made spaghetti with their own basil and oregano.

A sampling of the class's only red tomato brought with it a lesson about the superiority of a homegrown vegetable to the kind you buy in the store.

"This one was a lot better," Kerr said.

Each morning brings new tasks, such as the morning when the class had to hustle to fill a new strawberry bed with dirt so dying strawberry plants could be transplanted to it.

"They are so pumped up about it, they come to me the minute one job is done and ask what is next," Kerr said.

And at The Bloomin' Patch, serendipity is all in a day's work.

"We came in today and all the pumpkins had flowers," Kerr said. "Every day there's something new."

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