RANCHESTER — Midway through our local growing season, on July 24, the Tongue River Elementary school garden in Ranchester was overflowing with flowers and produce. It was also overflowing with young gardeners. Fifty-three of them to be exact.
They were watering, weeding, harvesting cucumbers and cabbage, tying up tomatoes and spraying organic pesticides to prevent damage to their crops.
“This thing was literally a pile of rocks,” said TRE Principal Deb Hofmeier, who was busy with a hoe, doing her part to rid the garden of weeds.
The school garden started 10 years ago and was initially housed in an employee’s backyard. Four years ago, the town of Ranchester offered the young gardeners a new spot behind the fire hall. Though the new location offered a large space, it needed a lot of work initially to build and loosen the soil, clear rocks and weeds and construct a fence.
“We were out there with pick axes. I literally wore out a tiller trying to get that bugger tilled every year,” said Gwen Kepley, a master gardener and retired para-professional from the school who has directed the garden since it began.
Despite the literally rocky beginning, the group managed to grow a large patch of pumpkins that first year. Four years on, the garden now boasts lettuce, beets, cabbage, tomatoes, squash, potatoes, onions, raspberries and more. In addition, an abundance of flowers grows alongside the vegetables, with some of the sunflowers now twice as tall as the children who planted them earlier this spring.
“We really started looking at the value of getting kids outside and into the garden and letting them make the connections with all the stuff we teach them in the school year; parts of a flower, birds, bees, insects, whatever we study,” Kepley said. “This is just the perfect place to do it.”
Students plant seeds in the spring and continue caring for the garden through the summer. In the fall when school resumes, they participate in harvesting the produce and distributing it.
“I came here in fourth and fifth grades,” sixth-grader Anyah Rodriguez said. “I like that we can play in the dirt and eat some things, try some things that we’ve grown.”
Hofmeier said almost every student in the school contributes to the project and their participation is entirely voluntary.
“I just like to be here,” fifth-grader Hunter O’Neal said about why he enjoys coming to the garden. “I love gardening and it is really fun.”
“Afterwards you get to eat a lot of the food,” fifth-grader Ty Doke said. “When it is a nice day you can check and see if the food is ready to eat or not. Sometimes I just eat them!”
The accomplished gardeners are now so good at their craft, that they get a bumper crop each year and spread the wealth among local residents.
“As we get more gardening (produce) in, we take it down to the community center,” Kepley explained. “We just pass it around to everybody. When school starts we’ll have a free veggie market in front of the school. We set out big buckets and people come and go and take what they want. We had loads last year. I can’t tell you how many people we fed out of that garden.”
“It really has been a great program,” she continued. “They have turned into the best gardeners. They get to see it from seedling, grow through the summer and then eat it.”
To keep costs to a minimum, the students find creative ways to re-use materials from the garden, using recycled fence, repurposing an old ladder as a trellis for gourds and using rocks as dividers between beds. Also, Kepley starts some seedlings in her greenhouse, rather than purchasing mature plants.
“We learned to operate on a shoestring budget,” Kepley said. “And that is what gardening is. You don’t have to have a lot of money to raise food for yourself.”
Another special repurposed part of the garden is a teepee made with very old, original teepee poles given to the garden by members of the Crow Indian Tribe. The sticks now make a “living” teepee, with gourds and morning glory flowers climbing up the sides.
Kepley said the garden provides a tangible way for kids to learn about topics they study in school. In addition to science subjects such as soil health and pollination, lesson plans incorporate historical subjects as well, such as how people grew gardens during the Depression and Victory Gardens during World War II. The kids also research how families and farmers grow plants in difficult conditions. For example, when they began growing pumpkins, they studied farmers in Africa and copied their method of digging pits for planting.
“We want to teach life skills and the most critical life skill is raising your own food, so that has been my passion the last few years,” Kepley said. “If you know how to do this, you will never be hungry.”