Sprouting interest: School’s garden teaches about food economy

Prairie Moon Waldorf School students Sebiyam Werdin-Kennicott, bottom left, Justice Renoux, top left, and Finn Veerkamp, top right, help garden manager Gillian Luellen, bottom right, at the school’s Okanis Garden. The garden teaches students about growing food and provides produce for the Community Mercantile.

A horn worm works its way across a tomato vine in the the Okanis Garden.

Gillian Luellen, left, garden manager for the Okanis Garden at the Prairie Moon Waldorf School, shows students how to pick spinach.

School is about teaching the basics. And what’s more basic than learning about one of the few necessities of life: food?

The students at the Prairie Moon Waldorf School, 1853 E. 1600 Road, are doing just that: Learning about life from seed to harvest, with a lesson in economics sprinkled in.

The garden, called the Okanis Garden, and the school will be open for a learning moment outside of the regular curriculum as part of this weekend’s Kaw Valley Farm Tour. The school’s garden is one of 18 food producers on the tour, which costs $10 per car load for both Saturday and Sunday and promises to be a “family friendly learning experience.”

It’s a tasty experience for first grader Finn Veerkamp, who was adamant about his favorite part of the garden.

“I like to pick the basil, just because it’s yummy,” Finn says.

The garden was made possible by a grant from the Elizabeth Schultz Environmental Fund through the Douglas County Community Foundation, says garden overseer Laurie Ward. Ward helped partner with local grower Barbara Clark of Maggie’s Farm, who was consulted on the planting and the usage of organic methods for use on the garden’s high-grade soil.

Since its planting in the spring, the garden has produced hundreds of pounds of vegetables which it has sold to the Community Mercantile, 901 Iowa, for use in its deli products and to members of a small Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) subscription produce service.

Of course, the kids have reaped the benefits of having veggies on-site, getting a split tomato every now and again for a snack.

Learning tool

Of course, the real benefit for the students, besides the tomatoes, is the learning experience — the kids spend time in the garden and helping the part-time garden manager, Gillian Luellen, pick the garden’s bounty.

“I try to tell the teachers what I’ll be harvesting that day, and then if they have time, they come out and I tell the kids how to pick the vegetables and which ones to do,” Luellen says. “They really love digging potatoes, which I understand — it’s like digging for treasure.”

The teachers also get into the act, working lesson plans around the garden. The school hopes that idea will get an upgrade next year, as board member Rick Mitchell says it would like to get a full-time gardener on staff next year so that the children can also spend class time learning about growing food.

“Ever since we started this school, I’ve wanted to get gardening into the curriculum,” Mitchell says. “This soil is prime soil … sitting on soil like this, we thought this was the perfect place to do a market garden. And it’s for educational purposes, but it is a market garden. We’re contributing to the local food economy out here.”

Also next year, the school plans to have a garden dedicated to growing food specifically for the children, he says. The original garden was set up specifically to be a market garden and was never meant for the children to use as their own personal pantry. Rather, the plan was always to grow food for money to help the privately funded school earn money.

Reaping the harvest

Happy to join in and help on the market end of things was Sula Teller, director of food services for the Community Mercantile. She was in on the project since January, helping to write the grant and giving the project a natural outlet for sales, outside of the CSA model and occasional sales at the Lawrence Farmers’ Market.

“Learning and children are really close to my heart and any time I can provide an educational experience, it has meant a lot to me. And it seemed like the Merc would be a natural for that,” Teller says. “So many times people put together gardens or projects that don’t have an end point in the real world and a correlate in the market place. And this garden did have a correlate in the market place and really, really made a lot of sense to me.”

The first produce began arriving in early spring, and the Merc pays normal market price for the vegetables, which have included cherry tomatoes, herbs, leeks and onions. Teller has used the ingredients in various deli offerings, including, most recently, soups.

CSA member Anne Brockhoff of Linwood has gotten a variety herself since subscribing to a once-a-week pickup in August. That’s when she heard about the service in the school’s newsletter — her daughter had attended the school for three years, but no longer goes. Among the bounty she’s gotten for $10 per week? Tomatoes — cherry and heirloom — leeks, beans, potatoes, onions, spinach, lettuce, herbs and flowers.

“We watched as the Okanis Garden was plotted and planted, and we were glad to have the chance to also enjoy some of the harvest. It’s also a great way to continue supporting the school, even though we no longer attend,” Brockhoff says. “The Okanis Garden celebrates the Kaw River Valley’s farming heritage, but more importantly to me, having it on the school grounds helps connect children to the soil and their food. Plus, the vegetables have been delicious!”