COLUMBIA — Miniature red spades, blue hoes and yellow rakes rested in the garden’s shed at West Boulevard Elementary, while a group of adults dedicated Saturday morning to ensuring the school’s vegetation program had room to grow.
More than a dozen Slow Food Katy Trail volunteers gathered near the playground. Their job was to build a structure designed to extend the students’ growing season as part of Slow Food in Schools' "Harvest of the Month." The new hoop house functions similar to a greenhouse and will protect plants from strong winds and colder temperatures.
At 10 a.m. Bobby Johnson from the Columbia Center for Urban Agriculture began picking unripe tomatoes, softball-sized watermelons and green peppers from the three garden beds closest to the playground.
“The first step is going to be to harvest all of those little knickknacks,” Johnson said, gesturing to a plant bursting with the green tomatoes. “They’ll ripen up. It might be good for the kids to see that in the classroom.”
An hour later the bare plants were tossed aside, and the beds had been moved to the opposite end of the garden. Volunteers began turning over dirt, and the empty garden beds transformed into the new hoop house's foundation.
“Schools have gardens in various states of disrepair,” Johnson said. “This is one of the nicer ones that I’ve seen.”
The Learning Garden in the Ashland School District inspired the project. Ashland has three of the structures, which are home to plants such as gourds, beans and pumpkins. Soon, students at West Boulevard will be able to plant vegetables that prefer cooler temperatures, such as lettuce and spinach, in the new hoop house.
By noon, cattle panel, a type of metal fencing, arched over the top of the earth and most volunteers could stand in the structure without bumping their heads. Eventually, the cattle panel will be covered with plastic and a door will be installed at one end of the structure.
“We’d love to do this in every school, but it’s volunteer dependent,” said Slow Food’s co-leader Bernadette Dryden.
Although the students took Saturday off, some teachers integrate spending time in the garden into the curriculum during the week. West Boulevard art teacher Mary Lynn Agnew and counselor Miriam Hasenclever joined the volunteers in the renovation.
“It’s important to include the whole community,” Hasenclever said. “It takes a lot of time and effort to keep a garden going.”
While the garden won't yield enough to feed the whole school, it provides a healthy and hands-on experience for the students. The children can eat the ripened vegetables straight from the plant. Beets may go untouched, but the young gardeners hunt through the strawberry plants searching for ripe red berries.
In Agnew’s classes some students made nature journals, which they use to write and draw pictures during their time in the garden. They’ve also molded and hand-painted ceramic crop-markers for the garden beds.
“It’s therapeutic,” Agnew said. “It helps them take pride in school, and as an art teacher I think the garden is kind of an art, too."
The garden ties well into reading and writing. A second-grade teacher will incorporate the "Harvest of the Month" by explaining where certain foods come from during social studies classes. The goal is to continue to expose the children to healthy foods.
“We’d love for it to be part of every school in the district,” Dryden said. “It helps children to get their hands in the dirt and have a greater appreciation for where their food comes from.”