‘A living laboratory:’ School garden enhances learning, healthy eatingFor the first time, students are enjoying fresh vegetables from an organic garden planted last spring in a patch of unused land in their school’s athletic complex.
By: Pamela Knudson, Grand Forks Herald
LARIMORE, N.D. — For the first time, students are enjoying fresh vegetables from an organic garden planted last spring in a patch of unused land in their school’s athletic complex.
The garden was planted and is tended by students in a crop production class taught by Max Danner, agriculture science and technology teacher at Larimore High School.
It’s producing late-season vegetables — tomatoes, bell peppers, cabbage and Brussels sprouts — to be served to about 350 kidswho eat their lunch at the elementary and high schools.
“The school has always had an excellent salad bar,” he said. “We’ve just expanded it with this produce.”
So far, the 20-by-50-foot garden has supplied three kinds of tomatoes — cherry, plum and pear — and several varieties of bell peppers, said Danner.
“About three dozen peppers have been picked already, and there’s more coming. We’ve picked 40 to 50 pounds of tomatoes.”
Cabbage and Brussels sprouts should be ready later this month and into October.
“They can take a little frost.”
As a teacher, Danner wanted to extend learning beyond the confines of the classroom, to create a “living laboratory,” he said.
His grant proposals netted funding for the project from Dakota College at Bottineau and the North Dakota Department of Agriculture.
Funding from the Bottineau campus was used to purchase 12 apple and four cherry trees that students also planted on school grounds.
The garden provides fresh vegetables for the lunch program and imparts valuable lessons in horticulture and healthy eating for students that will yield lifelong benefits, Danner said.
“Many of these students come from backgrounds that don’t include experience with gardening,” he said. “For about 80 percent of them, this is their first exposure to a vegetable garden.”
The idea behind the project was “to have kids take ownership of the garden,” he said. “That doesn’t happen overnight.”
‘Keep it simple’
The concept of the garden was discussed by the school’s health and wellness committee, Danner said. Promoting fresher, healthier fare has been high on its agenda.
“You can’t get ’em any fresher than this. And there are a lot of teachable moments — a lot of learning.”
Getting the project off the ground, he chose to limit its scope.
“We wanted to keep it simple, this being the first season,” he said.
To that end, he teaches “minimum-maintenance” techniques he learned from his grandmother, Clara Danner, on the farm near Johnstown, N.D., that she and her husband bought in 1928 — the same land he farms today.
In March, his students began indoors with seeds. This past spring, they moved them to the garden where they pressed empty coffee cans around the plants, about 2 inches into the soil, to protect them from wind, cutworms and slugs.
Only four times this past summer, students filled the cans to the brim with water, he said. The sandy soil draws water down, causing the plants to send roots deeper to get moisture. Deeper roots better serve the plant later in the season when energy is needed for above-ground growth.
That 8-inch depth of watertargets a specific area.
“If we had used sprinklers here, it would have taken much more water. It’s really an efficient practice,” he said.
No pesticides were used, and the chlorine in the water is the only chemical the plants received.
Several students stepped up this past summer to water and weed the garden: Ryan and Scott Iverson and John and Jennifer Fuqua. While Laura Brose, Jamison Fuqua, Benjamin Kubu, Cole Welte and Jennifer Wippler have been busy picking.
Students seem to have embraced the experience.
Kubu, a junior, said, “I’m a chef, and I need to learn to grow my own garden. I’ve learned a lot about watering and fertilizing — and that organic tastes better.”
Senior Laura Brose’s favorite aspect of the class is “being outside,” she said.
She also appreciates the quality of the produce the garden yields.
“It’s a lot better than stuff the school buys,” she said. “I notice that (students) eat healthier.”
High school principal Dave Wheeler said, “To see the various vegetables we have in our salad bar is pretty cool. The kids are excited to try them.
“It’s been fun. As I walk around the lunchroom, to see these kids putting vegetables on their plate. I haven’t heard of anyone saying, ‘I’m not going to eat that.’
“It’s a worthwhile project.”
At the elementary school, principal Leslie Wiegandt said she is “surprised” students so readily take the vegetables, she said. “They like them.”
That may be due to favorable growing conditions.
This summer’s hot, dry weather has stressed the crops a bit, resulting in higher quality of the produce, Danner said. “The tomatoes taste great. They’re nice and sweet.”
The notion of a school garden is not particularly new, he said. Others have been started at Granville, Fessenden and Kindred, N.D.
A recent survey by North Dakota FFA (Future Farmers of America) Foundation shows that of the 22 responses, 13 chapters have gardens “and almost everybody was giving produce to their schools’ lunch programs,” said Tamra Maddock, the foundation’s assistant director. They are also giving to local food pantries and nursing homes.
FFA chapters are associated with schools’ vocational agriculture programs throughout the state.
“Anytime you can provide a project that you can get so much curriculum value out of and service to the community, it’s wonderful,” she said, “especially for those students who don’t come from a farm.
“It’s pretty phenomenal.”
Maddock said some gardens have been started in the past year while others have been around much larger — such as one at Wahpeton which has been around 15 years.
Larimore Superintendent Roger Abbe said, “From the (school) district’s standpoint, we’re glad to see it happening. The things they’ve brought in so far — the tomatoes and peppers — you can really tell the difference.”
The real benefit for students, he said, “is not only eating vegetables but also learning how to raise those vegetables. So, when they get older and have families, they can have their own gardens some day.”
From the educational perspective, he said, “I can really see it evolving to include other teachers and learning opportunities.”
Wheeler also sees possibilities for using the garden to promote learning in science across the curriculum, in areas such as seed production and life science, he said. A greenhouse could also be developed.
Danner’s looking ahead too.
He will “definitely” have another garden next year, he said, and is considering adding carrots and cucumbers to the mix.
Call Knudson at (701) 780-1107; (800) 477-6572, ext. 1107; or send e-mail to email@example.com.