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School district's first gardener growing into the job

Science teacher Morgan Olson was hired this summer as Woodland Elementary School's first garden manager. (Karen Tolkkinen|Echo Press)1 / 2
Morgan Olson checks out the broccoli plants in Woodland Elementary School's raised-bed garden. Olson was hired this summer as the school's first garden manager. (Karen Tolkkinen|Echo Press)2 / 2

Woodland Elementary School's first-ever garden manager was trying to teach middle school students how to build houses to attract pollinators, with mixed results.

Two boys were happily learning "righty-tighty, loosey-lefty" with a screwdriver, while two girls stood rigidly back from a drill, hands behind their backs.

"I just like watching," one said, as other teachers tried to coax them.

"My dad said not to touch a drill," another said.

The manager, Morgan Olson, planned to hang the houses on the garden fence. He first learned school-based agriculture in another district. After he moved to Discovery Middle School to teach earth science, students in a program he leads called Youth Energy Summit, or YES!, said they wanted to grow food to help reduce food waste in the lunchroom.

Since Discovery doesn't have its own garden, he approached Woodland school officials with this idea.They not only agreed, they ended up hiring him as the temporary garden manager. Master gardeners had been working in the garden, but they needed someone to plan, organize and coordinate between students, schools and volunteers.

Olson works about 10 hours a week in the summer, fewer in the spring and fall. The garden manager position is funded by a $4,000 Statewide Health Improvement Program grant as well as by Targeted Services, a program that provides extra academic and social-emotional instruction for kids. Whether the position will exist in 2018 depends on grant funding, said Lynn Jenc, community education director.

Jenc said hiring a garden manager has allowed the garden to expand far beyond Woodland or the Compass childcare program or the YES! program. Children are involved from early education through high school. High school students designed the irrigation system.

"This year, we've been able to open it up," she said.

Plus, they get to eat the veggies. The cooks use much of it in summer meals and as snacks, while potatoes, onions and peppers will be stored for use throughout the winter.

"Our idea is that if students realize that they are eating food produced by students at our school garden site, they will be more conscious about food waste," Olson said. "Hopefully, they will find added value in the fresh foods we're providing."

With research showing that school gardens can help students choose healthier foods, they have have grown more popular across the country. During the 2006-2007 school year, 11 percent of elementary schools had one, but by 2012-2013, 26 percent did, according to a report by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. However, the report also found they aren't as common in Midwest schools.

Discovery's YES! Team, one of 29 in the state, researched individual crops, and raised seedlings under grow lights for the Woodland Elementary School garden, Olson said. They also prepared beds, pulled weeds, spread wood chips in the walkways, and planted seedlings. Compass summer child care has also helped with the garden, as have master gardeners.

Olson incorporates ideas from the back-to-the-land movement, such as block planting onions and lengthening the growing season by overwintering some plants. The huge onions stayed in their beds last winter, and kale can also survive a winter, he said. He carefully prunes pepper plants to produce a few big peppers. He also traps gophers, which were wreaking havoc on the peas and popcorn. Over five days in July, he trapped 15, he said.

Recently, student helpers made their own seed paper, using itty-bitty carrot seed, toilet paper and home-made glue to keep the seeds on the paper. They set the paper in a raised bed and covered it with peat moss, creating rows of perfectly spaced carrots that sprouted well.

In the summer, YES! students who can catch rides join Olson in the garden. Otherwise, they're involved mostly in spring and fall.

Hiring Olson as garden manager was a "terrific choice," said Linda Maack, a master gardener intern working this summer with the garden. "He's really great with the kids. ... I think it's a great experience for the kids, seeing where their food comes from."

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