Hannah Borreson, at left, and Harlee Gavin plant seeds in one of the garden plots at the Spring Grove school. COURTESY KAREN FRIED
Hannah Borreson, at left, and Harlee Gavin plant seeds in one of the garden plots at the Spring Grove school. COURTESY KAREN FRIED
For Spring Grove teacher Karen Stenhoff, last year's school garden provided a bumper crop of success.

With that in mind, the district plans to continue the project this spring. The green thumb classes brought in kids from kindergarten through high school in 2015. Each age group took on different challenges, and learned different lessons.

“Our dream of an organic vegetable garden on the school playground became a reality with a generous donation of $500 from the Houston County Master Gardeners in 2014,” Stenhoff reported.

“If you've got a little bit of space you can grow something. And if our kids have those skills and experience — and a positive outlook — it's a doable thing,” she added.

Stenhoff said she and husband, Roger, collected and hauled in donated stock tanks last year from local farmers as planting beds. In addition, Roger assisted a high school landscaping class, which pitched in with gusto, constructing raised beds and “low tunnels” made from conduit and greenhouse film. 

Volunteer help came from all quarters. Greg Ardinger tilled up a rectangular plot of ground along the left field foul line of the softball field. JC Nerstad brought in “bucket loads of good organic soil.”

“We planted lettuce and radishes inside the low tunnels right away,” Stenhoff noted. “Then we watered, weeded and waited.”

The repurposed tanks were filled with organic turkey compost provided by Kaare Sanness, as well as peat moss and soil. Gravel went in the bottom of the containers for drainage.

Staggemeyer Stave Company provided two loads of shredded bark to mulch pathways in May, the same month that each elementary class adopted a stock tank to call their own. Soon the older kids were helping youngsters plant peas, beans, peppers, sunflowers, squash, pumpkins, potatoes and nasturtiums, Stenhoff stated.

A big mound of leftover soil soon became a prizewinning cantaloupe hill, eventually sending 25 to 30 fruits to the school cafeteria as school resumed. But the harvest began long before that. Even before the 2014-15 term ended, freshly-picked Romaine lettuce was the star of the show at the school salad bar.

“We knew that lettuce was something we could always use more of,” Stenhoff noted. “By the middle of May, we were already sending it to the cafeteria. Our cooks are just fabulous to work with. They didn't mind washing and chopping the lettuce as students brought it in.”

Later on, grape tomatoes made great “right off the plant” snacks for the kids.

“Over the summer, volunteer families adopted the garden for a week,” Stenhoff added. “The Boy Scouts have (also) pitched in and our summer school program took over in July. Even our busy superintendent, Mrs. (Rachel) Udstuen, took a week to care for the garden with her children!”

This spring, planners would like to add a half-dozen apple trees, some composting facilities for garden waste, a couple more raised beds, and more.

In addition, an interesting science class project could be adding a “worm garden,” to break down organic material and improve soils.

A $1,500 Houston County Statewide Health Improvement Program mini grant has just been awarded to the program.

And the lessons learned?

“We just wanted students to experience taking a seed, planting it and watching something grow,” Stenhoff said. “I think they were positively surprised that actual fresh food can taste so much different than what they were accustomed to. Our focus has always been on providing an eating garden.”

The project teaches students that they can confidently produce their own food, Stenhoff said, allowing them to connect with the “whole cycle of growing things.”

“We had some pretty intensive gardening going on out there,” she concluded. “It really turned out well.”