SHERIDAN — Donna Johannesmeyer’s classroom at Woodland Park Elementary School provides a view of an open field north of the school. About two and a half years ago, Johannesmeyer wanted to alter the view to include something more attractive and productive: a garden.
Over the past few months, her plan has come to fruition due to broad community efforts. The Garden of Pride — named by Woodland Park fourth grade student Carsen Foote — is fully operational and beginning to show rewards of labor put in by an array of teachers, parents, students, businesspeople and volunteers.
The process involved converting about an acre of field to a fenced area with a garden, shed and hoophouse. Whitney Benefits owns the land, which it leased to Sheridan College.
The college then subleased it to the University of Wyoming Sheridan Research and Extension Center, which eventually entered into a land agreement with Woodland Park to allow the school to use part of the land.
To help put her plan in motion, Johannesmeyer talked with Rooted in Wyoming, a local nonprofit that funds and provides material to help build gardens. RIW executive director Bonnie Gregory put Johannesmeyer in contact with Brian Mealor, the director of the University of Wyoming Sheridan Research and Extension Center.
The Research and Extension Center provided a few thousand dollars toward infrastructure and spent time helping mow and till the garden, which Mealor said will likely continue.
“The spirit of the agreement is they can use the land for their educational purposes and for the school garden, and we provide them some support in terms of we share some equipment with them or we come over and do some work for them,” Mealor said.
Along the way, Johannesmeyer also was appointed to the Rooted in Wyoming board, which allowed her to facilitate work between the school and nonprofit. Gregory and Johannesmeyer worked together last year to write a grant for a Woodland Park hoophouse, which was constructed last fall and sits next to the garden. RIW also paid for a shed to house gardening and hoophouse supplies.
Most of the garden materials were donated, and RIW paid for the remaining costs. The Woodland Park parent-teacher organization donated money and a parent advisory committee helped determine the garden size and what to plant, which they based on student suggestions.
Shipton’s Big R donated seeds. Sheridan County donated lumber for soil beds. Bockman Group built the fences free of charge. Soil, compost and woodchips were donated as well.
Woodland Park hosted a build day April 21 at which about 100 people showed up to help assemble the soil beds. The school also put on a supply drive in April to get gardening tools, gloves and hoses for watering the plants.
Students planted all the seeds for vegetables, fruit and flowers. A plethora of nutritious options were planted, including spinach, cabbage, cucumbers, watermelons, tomatoes, corn, Brussels sprouts, green beans and cauliflower. There is also a separate pumpkin patch next to the soil beds.
Johannesmeyer serves as a teacher leader of the garden along with Woodland Park counselor Kevin Charleson. She has gardened all her life and believes it helps people socialize and work toward a healthy goal.
“I see the value in growing your own food and I think it’s a life skill that everyone should have,” Johannesmeyer said. “This is how you get [students] off of their iPads and away from the TV and outside when they see how successful it is.”
Mealor agreed, and said he enjoyed seeing the students’ enthusiasm when he visited the school.
“I’d pop in over there and check on things fairly frequently, and when school was in session, it was fun to stop in and just see how excited the kids were about being out there and watching things grow,” Mealor said. “It’s really neat to see them be excited about learning like that … That’s really the primary educational benefit for why we partnered in that garden.”
Johannesmeyer also called the garden an excellent place to recharge for teachers and students alike. Staff members can eat on a picnic table when the weather is nice, and a few teachers have brought anxious or upset students to the gardens to help them calm down.
“I think it’s therapy,” Johannesmeyer said. “It’s a beautiful thing to see. It brings joy to, I think, anyone who comes out here.”
Gregory said it has been great to see the collaborative efforts and that the next focus involves bringing more efficient water irrigation to the Woodland Park garden, i.e. drip systems inside the soil beds.
For now, two families per week have volunteered to nourish the plants daily. The volunteers have first options to harvest the produce, most of which will be ready in fall. Johannesmeyer hopes the fresh food can eventually be offered to students.
Woodland Park is far from the only school to recently get into gardening. Holy Name and Big Horn schools also recently constructed gardens, and Johannesmeyer said Normative Services, Inc. is in the process.
She attributed the increase to more support for fresh produce.
“There’s a big movement for locally-grown and locally-sourced (food),” Johannesmeyer said. “Just being stewards of the land and teaching that stewardship to the kids; teaching them that they can raise their own food, that they can sustain themselves through this life skill. I think that’s where this big push is coming from.”
With more awareness and financial support, gardens have created fresh options for local schools.