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Last week three families arrived to help tend the Houlton Elementary School's gardens. They are, from left, Matt Sklar, Lauren Sklar, Kim Sklar, Addisu Haverly, Lisa Haverly, Will Haverly, Rebecca Ibbotson, Mya Huebner, Heidi Huebner, Scarlet Huebner, Maggie Huebner and Sandy Madsen.

Gardening at Houlton Elementary

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Gardening at Houlton Elementary
River Falls Wisconsin 2815 Prairie Drive / P.O. Box 25 54022

According to Master Gardener Sandy Madsen, Gardening at Houlton Elementary includes three distinct categories. They are:

Composting

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The whole school collects fruit and vegetable scraps in the cafeteria every day. Various students then dump the bucket of scraps into the compost bin and cover the scraps with shredded leaves. The compost bin has three sections. One section is for layering current scraps. One holds shredded leaves for covering the scraps. The third holds "cooking compost." Garden club members turn that bin over once a week. When the compost is done cooking, it cools down and is screened into buckets. The completed compost is now ready to be added to garden beds.

Classroom planting projects

Kindergarteners plant pumpkin seeds in the greenhouse in May and transplant them to their two raised beds in June along with radish seeds. Each student harvests his or her pumpkin in September as a first-grader.

First-graders plant snap peas, spinach, lettuce, carrots and radishes in early April and then thin the plants three weeks later. The cafeteria uses all the produce.

Second-graders plant watermelon and cantaloupe seeds in the greenhouse in May and transplant them to their garden bed along with cucumber and radish seeds in June. The cafeteria uses all the produce.

Third-graders plant a Pizza Garden with onions and garlic in April and tomatoes, peppers, basil, oregano, parsley and sage in June. Some of the produce is used in the cafeteria, some is offered to the parents for a free-will donation and some was used by the secretary to make pizza sauce for the students.

Fourth-graders plant a Three Sisters Garden, which is a planting method widespread among Native American farming societies. It is used as a sustainable system that provides long-term soil fertility and a healthy diet to generations of people. First the students plant ornamental corn. When the corn is 6 inches high they plant pole beans and winter squash. The decorative corn is given away or sold. The dried beans and squash are used in the cafeteria.

Fifth-graders have been maintaining and learning from their one acre prairie for four years. They originally planted seeds and plants thinly throughout the whole area. The first year most plants "sleep." The second year they "creep." The third year they "leap" and continue to thrive through their maintenance. The prairie includes dozens of varieties of native species that bloom in a beautiful sequence all throughout the growing season.

Garden Club

The garden club meets every Wednesday during the noon recess throughout the spring and fall growing seasons. Three different students from each classroom come each week so everyone can have a chance to join in the fun. These students plant flowers, pull weeds, water, cultivate, harvest produce, and do general maintenance by deadheading, spreading woodchips and cleaning up plant residue. They also turn over, screen and spread compost.

Each week during the summer a different family volunteers their time to maintain the gardens by weeding, watering and harvesting along with general maintenance of the beds and compost bin.

These projects have been supported through grants from The St. Croix Valley Master Gardeners Association, Houlton Elementary Outdoor Education Fund and personal donations.

Madsen started the Garden Club and Project, with this being the fourth summer of the garden, with the encouragement of Houlton Principal Ann Mitchell. It began with transplanting 500 native plants to the prairie also on the Houlton grounds. Madsen became a master gardener in 2008.

It started with one bed and gradually grew to include a specific bed for each grade.

"We try something new every year. This year it was raspberries," said Madsen. "The students are out here nine weeks in the fall and nine weeks in the spring." Madsen concentrates on crops which the students can harvest in the spring and the fall. She also raises some of the same varieties at her home, just in case, for example, there are not enough pumpkins for each student in that grade.

"Everybody is behind this," said Madsen. "If it was just me is would be overwhelming. The kids seem to take a certain ownership in the project. Ironically one of the favorite activities is turning the compost."

Parents pitch in all summer. Other master gardeners help and the school staff is anxious to use the harvest in the cafeteria.

"I'm glad the kids have the opportunity to partake in this and to see where their food comes from," said Heidi Huebner. Echoing similar sentiments Kim Sklar commented "I think it is a great idea for the kids to learn about nature, gardens and self-sufficiency."

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