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What's Growing in the School Garden?

By Hope McLeod


A week before school, Greta Kochevar and Lori Filbert met in the Washburn High School (WHS) cafeteria to talk about what’s growing in the Washburn School Garden and can be turned into school lunches – the primary function of this garden.

“Kale, green beans, basil, dill, tomatoes, cucumbers, and broccoli,” reported Kochevar, the district’s Green and Healthy School Coordinator and WHS Family/Consumer Science teacher.

Also, potatoes, beets and onions are not far behind. Kochevar oversees everything inside this 6400-square-foot elementary school teaching garden, also the WHS high tunnel, where students tend, study, harvest, and sell produce to the community – and occasionally donates to the kitchen, Filbert’s domain. Filbert is the WSD Food Service Director, who magically prepares and serves deliciously nutritious meals daily at the Elementary and MiddleSchool/High School cafeterias.

After hearing Kochevar’s veggie recital, Filbert checked off “salad bar ingredients” for her first-week-of-school menu plan.

“Kids love the salad bar. They seem to enjoy eating what they (or their friends) grow,” she said.

Since 2005 the Washburn School District (WSD) has been deeply committed to environmental responsibility, sustainability education, and health and wellness initiatives, involving every student from 4K-12. Washburn was the first school in the region to establish a Farm-to-School teaching garden with Americorps members as managers. (Kochivar was a manager from 2008-2011). Also, in 2009 the district was recognized as a Wisconsin Green & Healthy School, and in October 2017 received a U.S. Department of Education Green Ribbon Schools District Sustainability award. On top of this layer-cake, five kids from the elementary school were invited to plant the Whitehouse garden in 2016 with former First Lady Michelle Obama.

“Next Friday we’re having roasted veggies,” Filbert informed Kochevar. “So whatever smaller amounts of veggies you have, I can mix into that” to which Kochivar suggested the few beets ready for harvest. “Excellent! I can make those into a chocolate cake too.”

This is how their conversations will ping and pong from now until Halloween when the kids put the school garden to bed. Meanwhile, Kochevar, and her students, will take weekly inventory; Filbert will menu-plans, and two (soon-to-be-hired) Americorps members will deliver the goods. Dishes like Greek cucumber salad with Tzatziki sauce will amazingly show up on the kids’ lunch trays.

Before launching into what else is growing, first a drone’s-eye view of campus: a teaching garden, high tunnel, apple orchard, aquaponics lab, and three pollinator gardens, providing healthy insects to make these gardens grow. Keeping this beehive buzzing requires careful orchestration between teachers, administration and students. Besides Kochevar and Filbert, other players include the summer crew.

This summer the school hired two garden caretakers: Washburn alumna Emily Wiatr and Northland College graduate Ryan Padrutt, who did everything from creating a new pumpkin patch in the elementary school Habitat Improvement area to installing a pollinator panel in the WHS Washburn Castle Garden. This educational panel displays examples of materials needed by pollinators for nesting and overwintering.  

Also, this summer 10th graders Caroline Ray, Lily Wheeler, and Seth Johnson worked as high tunnel agripreneurs. In its fourth year, this program gives students a stipend-paid opportunity to wear two hats: farmer and entrepreneur. This summer they grew over $1200 worth of basil, green beans, melon, peppers, cucumbers, and tomatoes, and sold to Dalou’s Bistro, Coco’s Café, Fat Radish, and Spirit Creek Farm.

William Schlager, the MS Science teacher who co-teaches high tunnel projects with Kochevar, estimated they harvested six pounds of basil weekly from late June until the end of August; 100 pounds of beans; over 300 pounds of tomatoes; and “more cucumbers than we know what to do with.”

One advantage to having a high tunnel is when produce gets scarce, or is recalled, like cucumbers were recently, the district has plenty. Last winter/spring the kitchen had more than enough spinach –50 pounds delivered biweekly. That’s because WHS students participated in a two-year UW-Extension Spinach Trial Project. This statewide information-gathering venture involved testing the effects of light and heat on growing winter spinach inside high tunnels. Trial over, students have resumed charge of their winter high tunnel. On September 15 they planted lettuce, spinach, kale, and an experimental carrot crop.

Stop by to see what’s growing. Better yet, have lunch in the cafeteria! 

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