By Dr. Nancy Rajanen
About four years ago, a group of green-thumbed visionaries in Waconia developed a hands-on learning experience at Clearwater Middle School called the Waconia Edible Classroom.
Located on the former Jerome Brown property on the south side of the middle school, the group plotted out a school garden to provide students with the opportunity to grow vegetables for use in the classroom. At the end of the first summer, it was clear that we were masters at cultivating weeds, but definitely needed some help at the organization of a functioning school garden.
Fast forward to 2013. Today, the Edible Classroom is a work of art, and a delight to behold! The middle school students, under the direction of Clearwater teachers Leah Pierce, Michele Melius and Rachel Worm, designed and planted everything from bok choy to beans, peas to peppers, onions, tomatoes, and so much more. Approximately 40 apple, cherry, pear, and apricot trees are now bearing fruit on another 1.25 acres as well.
Recognizing that we needed some real farming expertise, the school enlisted the help of Colleen and Mike Klingelhutz, local organic farmers, who have provided direction and leadership to the crop selection, placement, soil management, and drainage. In addition, the program has arranged for three college interns to help with programming for the garden. They provide hands-on gardening lessons every day to dozens of students in summer school, summer daycare students, community visitors, and students in the Special Education programs. The 2013 interns were: Amanda Burgdorf, Randi Kemble and Mackenzie Clague.
All of these efforts have produced an award winning garden. The Waconia Edible Classroom has been the recipient of six grants and awards from Whole Kids Foundation, Home Depot, Welch’s, General Mills and United Health and Healthy Sprouts. Support also came from Minnesota Department of Health, Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, Minnesota Departments of Education & Agriculture, the Jeffers Foundation, and the Carver County Farm Bureau. Community members and parents also donated gloves, tools, boots, and seeds.
Mackenthun’s Fine Foods has donated seeds every year; Braunwarth Wells drilled a well and Weller irrigation donated the labor for an irrigation system. Shady Acres Herb Farm has donated a load of plants each of the past two years. An accessible path and a raised bed were built for students and visitors who use wheelchairs. One of our local students, Daniel Young, who is pursuing his Eagle Scout Award, built a great set of raised beds.
Of course, the benefits of the program carry over to our school lunch program. Our Nutrition Services program uses the vegetables in school lunches in the spring and fall, with special signs designating the foods that the students grew. Our summer students have also enjoyed some of the various veggies with dip, and making fresh salsa with the various ingredients they grew. I’ve been told that the sugar snap peas have never made it into the building. Students tend to gobble those up right off the vine!
The benefits of a school garden are enormous. Our students are learning about the seed to table progression, a concept somewhat lost on many students. By preserving this knowledge, we are also helping to preserve much of the rich agricultural history of the area. Middle school teachers have integrated garden lessons into our science classes, art classes, social studies, and cooking/nutrition/health classes. In addition, some of the high school Industrial Technology students built benches for students to use during instructional time in the garden. I believe that the project also fosters environmental stewardship and healthier eating habits in our students.
The garden has also provided opportunities for art experiences for students. Beyond making decorating signs, the students have created a patchwork of garden paintings in a quonset storage building on the property. We hope to further expand this connection with nature and art.
One of my favorite stories came from a mom, who picked up her son at Kids Company, our summer daycare program for school-aged students. Upon arriving at pick-up time, her son ran up to her, and breathlessly told her about this really cool thing in the garden that she had to see. He dragged her out to the row of sugar snap peas, and shared one fresh off the vine. What a wonderful real-life lesson in the joy of a garden.
After four years, I can confidently say that the Waconia Edible Classroom has really taken root. It has been such a joy to see hundreds of people catching the bug to grow plants, grow young minds, and grow the Edible Classroom. The garden is open 24 hours a day. Please stop by and visit … and experience the Edible Classroom!