The workday at Mickens' Pickin's garden center starts early. Right around 8:30 a.m. students make their way to the greenhouse and pull on plastic gloves. There are tomatoes to check in the shade house. Then it's time to peek at the new hydroponic garden that's flush with arugula, cilantro, rosemary, peppers and crookneck squash. Bags of fresh soil need to be scooped into pots. Petunias, marigolds and forget-me-nots need to be transplanted. The cosmos and budding zinnias want some watering, too.
It's busy work for exceptional education students at Moore-Mickens Education Center, which created the small garden business to teach practical and social skills to students with special needs.
"My grandpa loves gardening so I take it from him," said Jacob Gerhart, 17. "I like the smell. It's fun. It feels great helping the garden."
"I like replanting the plants and seeing how they grow," added Yesenia Montejo, 19. "I like the colors of the flowers."
The flowers, vegetables and herbs are sold in small, private plant sales (the school is not yet ready to sell to the public). The last sale netted about $280, which was funneled back into the business to buy more seeds, pots, fertilizer and soil.
The more important profits are less tangible: giving these students a better understanding of how things grow, and developing skills that might help them land paying jobs.
The Mickens' Pickin's plant nursery is one of three school-based businesses for special-needs students at Moore-Mickens, and part of a larger on-the-job training program with ties to the community.
"We try to get as many meaningful job skills as we can for our students," said Larry Meyer, the resource teacher for the school-based job preparation program at Moore-Mickens and Pasco, Zephyrhills and Wesley Chapel high schools. "We allow the students to choose an interest. We do a career assessment and we try to find as close a fit as possible."
There are 25 students in the on-the-job training program. Some spend part of their school day at local businesses, trying their hand in the kitchen or dining room at Pasco Regional Medical Center. Others work at Royal Oaks Nursing Center or the Edwinola Retirement Community, maintaining the grounds, taking meal orders or helping with social activities for the residents. Still others sign up for positions at Born Again Thrift Store, Premiere Health Services, A Precious Beginning Day Care and Habitat of East Pasco. Some might decide to further their education by sitting in on selected classes at Saint Leo University.
And they get on-the-job training right on campus, too, through the three businesses at Moore-Mickens.
Gayle Lovelace, an exceptional student education teacher, oversees the making of "Yapper Snappers" dog biscuits, which are distributed to local veterinarians and a dog rescue service in Citrus County. Students put their creativity to good use making greeting cards for "Mickens Specialty Cards," a business that is especially popular during the holiday season. Then there's Mickens' Pickin's new garden center.
Mary Lou Jordan, the job placement transition specialist at Moore-Mickens, oversees both the card business and the garden center. The latter got its start after Jordan took an interest in the idle greenhouse tucked away in the back of the quiet campus.
"With all that's going on with the economy and cutbacks, you have to look at things in a different way. You have to make do with what you have," she said. "I saw the greenhouse and I saw potential."
With more than $500 in seed money from teachers and private contributions and a slew of pots donated by agriculture teachers at Pasco High, the new business opened Feb. 4. The hydroponic garden, funded by a $400 Splash! grant from the Southwest Florida Water Management District, was recently completed to add fresh herbs and vegetables to the product line.
The school-based enterprise has prompted growth in more ways than one, Jordan said.
"The beauty of it is that when the students have an invested interest, they want to learn on their own," she said. "They take the initiative."
And that could lead to other paths.
Some students might go on to work in a local nursery. Some might start their own backyard garden. And some, like Breanna McQueen, might simply learn a little something about themselves.
"You have to have a mother's instinct to do this," said McQueen, 20, as she kept to her work transplanting forget-me-nots into hanging baskets. "That's what Miss Jordan taught us."