Monday, December 15, 2014

Another school garden crops up

A new school garden is blooming in North Pole and with assistance from the local Rotary Club, it should grow by leaps and bounds next summer.
North Pole Elementary School kicked off its gardening activity last spring.

At North Pole Elementary School, teachers and students dipped their toes in the waters of growing food last year. “We wanted to give kids a chance at outdoor learning and applied science,” said Principal Mark Winford.

Three planter boxes with potatoes, broccoli and other vegetables were a small start for NPES. Now, thanks to a generous donation from North Pole Rotary Club, the school will be able to broaden its agricultural scope.

The Rotarians have set aside $11,000 to help the school garden. “It’s farm to table and it starts in the classroom,” Rotarian Michelle Bunch said. “It will be eco-friendly flowers and food. We want to teach children that every food item doesn’t come out of a box.” She envisions a guest chef visiting the school to prepare food that the children grow. “That would be kind of cool,” she said.

Ron Jones, Rotary Club president, said, “We want to help educate youth on eating well and growing their own food.”

The club recently invited University of Alaska Fairbanks Professor Pat Holloway to talk about school gardens.

Holloway said, “I am absolutely thrilled that you are going to be involved with this school garden.” In her 30-year career at UAF’s School of Natural Resources, Holloway said the programs she has enjoyed the most are the ones involving children. “It’s rewarding to see kids come into a garden with no idea where potatoes come from and to be able to show them how food is grown.
“A good project will pay benefits for many years.”

At NPES, Principal Winford agrees. “Using the plant cycle and life cycle gives teachers a great card to play,” he said. Gardening can also teach students patience and delayed gratification, he said. “We want to let kids see the whole process.”

With a goal of having an autonomous garden, Winford envisions a signup sheet for staff and students to participate. “Also we want to make the school grounds look nice,” he said. While potatoes are always a hit with students, he said he is open to ideas for what to plant. “We want what will grow well and look nice.”

Holloway was brimming with suggestions. First, she recommended that some of the beds be raised to be accessible to people in wheelchairs. Then she recommended a book, “Square Foot Gardening With Kids,” which she called a dynamite book.

“Kids think in small spaces,” she said. “In a large garden they can get overwhelmed and can’t think beyond their toes.” She advised dividing raised bed gardens into square-foot sections.

Citing a national survey, Holloway said children love to grow peas, tomatoes, pumpkins, cucumbers, potatoes, carrots, beans, radishes, lettuce and onions. “We can grow all of these,” she said. “I advise asking the kids what they want to grow.”

One thing that should be in every school garden is strawberries, she said, recommending an annual variety like Quinault. “Kids love strawberries.”

For peas, Holloway said children can build trellises out of willow branches. “It’s so easy; it’s a piece of cake,” she said. Some favorite varieties are Sugar Ann, Cascadia and Novella.

She said children love small tomatoes and one of her favorites is Red Robin. “Stick with the ones recommended for the outdoors, Subarctic 25, Stupice and Prairie Fire.”

Pumpkins take up a lot of space and need a plastic hoop. Small Sugar, Racer, Rockstar and Lumina were some of the varieties Holloway recommended.

For lettuce, the varieties are seemingly endless. “Try crazy colors like Speckled Trout, Red Sails or Merlot. Get goofy ones. Mix it up for fun.”

Colorful and oddly shaped carrots are also a hit with children. “You can see the surprise on the kids’ faces,” she said. The same is true with potatoes that are not white. “Kids adore purple potatoes,” Holloway said. The Haida pre-dates the Gold Rush. “It’s Alaska’s earliest garden heirloom.”

She also loves to see flowers mixed with vegetables. If a school is growing edible flowers, Holloway urged that they stick with all edible varieties so children don’t get confused about what they can eat.  “It’s one or the other,” she said.

“But you have to have sunflowers,” she said. “They bring history into the classroom and provide seeds to feed the birds. You can have pollinator lessons and teach how they attract bumblebees. And don’t forget you have to have a scarecrow.”

She ended her talk with the Rotarians by saying, “I’m really excited about this project and I think you are going to have some fun.”

Professor Pat Holloway gives a gardening book to Ron Jones, president of North Pole Rotary Club.

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