New community garden sprouting at West Junior High School

Garden taking root at junior high

Nancy O’Connor, nutrition educator and outreach coordinator at The Community Mercantile, center, discusses plans for a garden at West Junior High School with gardener Diane Wilson, Lecompton, left, and Lawrence farmer Dan Phelps on Tuesday on the east side of the school.

Want to help?

Nancy O’Connor, coordinator of the Growing Food, Growing West project, needs volunteers to help dig beds, add compost and put down mulch in pathways, among other tasks.

The volunteer day will begin at 1 p.m. Sunday at West Junior High School, 2700 Harvard Road. The rain date is April 18.

If you are interested in helping with the volunteer day or with the overall project, contact Nancy O’Connor by e-mail at

What began as a seed — or an idea — to have a school garden at West Junior High School has grown into a multifaceted project.

The Community Mercantile displays various donation cards designed in the form of garden tags.

O'Connor goes over a sketch of the garden during a meeting at the Community Mercantile.

Organizers of the project are soliciting donations from local businesses help with purchasing tools and supplies.

It’s now about much more than maintaining a 4,000-foot-square garden.

The project includes:

• Hiring six WJHS students to not only work in the garden, but also to do presentations about the garden, document the process and do taste testings in the commons area.

• Selling the produce in weekly markets at the school.

• Using the produce in the cafeteria.

• Incorporating the garden project into classes, such as business, health, writing, photography and art.

“It’s going to be fun because it’s going to be such a visual project. It will be something that the neighborhood can see and the kids can see and be proud of,” said Vickie Lowe, health teacher at the school.

Lowe has worked for years with Nancy O’Connor, nutrition educator and outreach coordinator at The Community Mercantile, and executive director of the Community Mercantile Education Foundation.

It was O’Connor who planted the seed for the project after attending an agriculture conference last fall in Des Moines, Iowa. She said everyone was talking about planting school gardens.

“I really wanted to take that next step,” she said.

Taking root

This spring, the project “Growing Food, Growing West” has taken root with the help of donations and grants. It received a $12,000 grant from the Douglas County Community Foundation’s LiveWell initiative. The Merc has contributed $6,000. O’Connor estimates the project will cost $20,000.

Two part-time garden coordinators — Dan Phelps and Diane Wilson — were hired to map and plan the garden, which will be on the east side of the school along Crestline Drive. Both have an extensive history in horticulture and their own gardens.

Wilson, of Lecompton, previously was director of grounds at Montpelier, the estate of James Madison in Virginia.

Phelps, of Lawrence, worked with Girls 2000, a group that enabled eight girls in inner-city San Francisco grow a garden and sell produce, where there hadn’t been other fresh produce for miles.

“It was real meaningful work,” he said.

Phelps hopes the “Growing Food, Growing West” project is the first of many school gardens in Lawrence, and he’s happy to take part in it.

“I love working with kids and I love gardening, so this is a great opportunity,” he said.

The garden coordinators and O’Connor, project coordinator, have their work cut out for them. During a meeting Tuesday, they were going over seed and plant donations from area businesses and growers, plans for fencing, needs for tools, schedules for garden work, and a grant application to get carts and wheelbarrows. They also talked about having a logo contest and T-shirts.

“Sometimes I feel like my head is going to explode because there are so many ideas,” O’Connor said. “There’s just lots of layers to it.”

So far, the soil has been tested, half of the compost spread and the ground tilled. They hope to have the students hired this month. A community volunteer day will be Sunday for digging beds, adding compost, putting down mulch in pathways and setting up an irrigation system, among other tasks.

Lasting work

O’Connor said the key to this garden is that it will be sustainable.

“Some school gardens languish in the summer, but ours is going to be very strong in the summer,” she said. “If we did this at an elementary school, it would be adults doing it for kids, and what we want here is kids doing it for kids. Kids turning kids on to what they are doing.”

The six students will earn $7.25 an hour and work about five hours a week for 24 weeks, O’Connor said.

“They will have an experience that other junior high students won’t,” she said.

Zach Batterman, a seventh-grader, said he plans to apply for the job.

“It’s a job and it gives me something to do, and you get paid,” he said.

Batterman said he has helped his parents plant tomatoes, peas and carrots. He likes to watch the tomatoes grow, but would rather eat the carrots and peas.

He’s in luck, because carrots and peas will be among the items planted in the garden.

There also will be tomatoes, radishes, green beans, peppers, onions, beets, spinach, flowers, herbs and more.

“Horticulture is therapeutic,” Wilson said. “I think it’s really empowering for the kids to know how to plant, market and sell their food.”

To help finance the garden for years to come, profits will be deposited in a bank account. O’Connor also plans to invite the community to a fundraising feast in the fall that will feature foods from the garden.

“We want this to be successful on lots of levels,” O’Connor said. “We don’t want it to be a one-time project. We want it to be the start of something different.”

She said some community leaders have even suggested asking First Lady Michelle Obama to visit the project. Obama launched a national initiative “Let’s Move” in February to combat childhood obesity.

“It’s keeping me up at night because it really is big,” O’Connor said.