Larry Caldwell's special-needs students can't wait to get their hands dirty.
With the help of a master gardener, the six youngsters at Peachtree Ridge High School in Suwanee are learning how to plant tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, squash and herbs. They're learning about bluebirds and butterflies, and how to maximize space on a small patch of land.
They have to be prepared. After all, this spring the ninth- to 11th- graders will tend to a 5-foot-by-14-foot plot in Suwanee's new organic community garden in the historic district.
"We have charts, what we're going to plant," Caldwell said. "I think it's going to be a really good thing."
Once the first phase is complete in April or May, the Harvest Farm Community Garden along Buford Highway will boast 76 plots over 1.5 acres with room to grow to 112 plots.
That would make it one of the largest organic community gardens in the Southeast. Most large community gardens average about 40 plots, according to area gardeners.
"If people were to come and see this thing, they're not going to be blown away with its sheer size, like they would if they saw the Eiffel Tower or the Grand Canyon," Suwanee Mayor Dave Williams said. "But it's all going to be organic. That's unique."
And the fact that the city is in the driver's seat also makes this project unique, said Daron "Farmer D" Joffe, who owns two resource centers for organic gardening in metro Atlanta. He's been working with Suwanee leaders for the past nine months.
"It's not very common for a city to spearhead and fund a community garden of this scale," he said. "It should be exciting to see it come to life."
The Gwinnett County municipality of 16,500 has been sewing the seeds for the garden for almost a decade as a way to give a nod to Suwanee's agricultural roots and, more importantly, build a sense of community, Williams said.
"We want people to get out of their house, out of their cars, out of their gated communities to come together, meet each other, work together and collaborate on this project to build a stronger community fabric," said Williams, whose family will tend to its own plot.
Suwanee's community spirit is part of the reason Jennifer Suttles of Lawrenceville obtained a plot. She also wants to use it as a learning tool for her children.
"I think it's a great experience for my kids to grow vegetables," Suttles said, "and I don't have enough sunlight to do it in my yard."
The garden is just one component of the new 7-acre White Street Park, which will feature orchards, walking trails and outdoor classrooms.
The property is among more than 300 acres of space the city has acquired through its open-space program, a $17.7 million green-space initiative started in 2001.
Suwanee is laying the foundation for the garden, including walls and erosion-control measures, to the tune of about $160,000. The overall budget for the park is $590,000, city officials said.
The city will also foot the bill for water and general maintenance, but care for each plot is up to the individuals, officials said. Fees range from $50 to $100 per year, based on the size of the plot: small, medium or large.
Although the deadline to submit an application is Monday, the city notes that all plots have been claimed. A waiting list has been started.
To ensure the garden's success, a Suwanee committee has come up with a list of rules, with a stiff penalty if they're not followed.
"If you're not a good gardener, if you're not a good neighbor," Williams said, "you're kicked out."