Roberta “Ro” Haight, University of Minnesota Extension Kanabec County Master Gardener, recalls the excited greeting she and colleague, Valerie Prax received from Mora Elementary School students as they arrived for a classroom vegetable tasting party. The students’ undeniable enthusiasm for garden vegetables is one reason why she considers the “Gardening is Science” program a success. Students learn the science behind how food grows, how collaboration brings good things to the community, and much more.
Resource Training & Solutions honored Kanabec County and Mora Schools with the Bridge Award for their work in developing the “Gardening is Science”project. The Bridge Award celebrates Resource member organizations who advance innovative solutions, demonstrate meaningful community progress, and advocate for positive change going beyond regular responsibilities.
Gardens Help Students
Haight and Prax wanted to get youth involved in gardening projects because of their ability to teach a multitude of concepts. They allow students to plan, make predictions, conduct experiments, practice math skills, discuss the history and politics of food production, and learn about nutrition.
Prax used the Junior Master Gardener curriculum from the Cooperative Extension at Texas A and M University as a planning starting point and inspiration for her own project. She presented her ideas to Mora Elementary School fifth grade teacher, KaylaThor, who liked the idea of teaching students in the natural environment with hands-on planting experiences. “It amazes me how many kids don’t have gardening experience, even though we live in a rural community,” Thor said.
Principal Randy Qual supported Thor as she began collaborating with Prax and Mora Elementary Curriculum Director, Lois Adams, to develop their own gardening curriculum focusing on third and fifth grade science learning benchmarks.
Building It Together
With a plan, the school secured initial grants for materials from the Mora Education Foundation (MEF) and the Jeffers Foundation.
Many community partners came forward to get the garden started. The Mora High School Applied Math and Construction class designed and constructed six raised bed structures and D&M Excavating, a local business, donated the soil for filling them. Bassett’s Greenery in Mora donated seed packets. The Mora High School Agriculture and FFA loaned garden tools and a portable greenhouse to the group so classes could start seedlings. Parents of local Girl Scouts built a fence and a sign for the garden, and Mora Elementary art classes created ceramic pieces to decorate the plots.
How Does this Garden Grow?
Thor’s students work with Prax and Haight to design garden plots by theme. One class chose “pizza” and planted tomatoes, onions, garlic, peppers, oregano, and basil. Another chose “dessert” and planted melons, carrots, beets, spearmint, and peppermint.
The students start seedlings, select plants, and learn how to transplant them in the garden plot. “Every kid has something to do.They are busy and interacting with the environment and each other. There is no behavior management for me as their teacher, because everyone is engaged,” she explains.
The gardening curriculum includes exposure to vegetables that may be new to students, like jicama, and kale. Students learn not only about garden plants themselves, but also about healthy eating and nutrition. Research shows this leads them to taste produce that they wouldn’t otherwise choose and fosters lifelong healthy eating habits.
Students build on what they learn about with their own garden by taking field trips to other growing locations. Classes have toured Sapsucker Farms where they learn about beekeeping, apple growing, the maple syrup making process, hoop houses, and mushroom growing. They have traveled to see the Water Ways Exhibit at the Audubon Center of the Northwoods, and have toured the Mora Community Garden. Thor tries to expose students to wildlife, habitats, and the natural world that connect to the school garden plot but also extends beyond it.
When the school year ends, and classes depart for summer vacation, community volunteers pitch in to keep the garden growing through its most important season. Girl Scout Troop 850 volunteers Brie Struwve, Lauren Kohlgran, and Annelise Moe work in the garden some of the produce to the Mora Food Shelf. “Our troop is able to stock the food shelf with fresh vegetables instead of processed food,” Moe said. “That is better for people.”
Haight also works with residents from Recovering Hope, an addiction treatment center for women. The residents also get the opportunity to learn about gardening and work in the Mora Elementary School garden over the summer. Sherry Bittner, a resident says, “The way Ro teaches is great. She takes her time to explain things and I love learning new things.” Fellow resident, Tabitha Dick, agrees and hopes the volunteer work leads to good job references later on.
“Being an addict, it’s a struggle to get back into society,” Bittner said. “For me, this work is a privilege and a chance to contribute.”
Thor credits the project’s extensive community collaboration to the team’s willingness to ask for help. “We’ve had so many groups step up,” she said. “My advice to anyone starting a project with community partners is to not be afraid to reach out for help.”