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Bertha's first community garden produces bountiful harvest

Photo provided Students tended to their own community garden and reaped the rewards of their efforts.1 / 2
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Community gardens come in many different configurations: raised beds, plots divided for individual gardeners, shared space and shared produce. Bertha's garden follows this last format and Jean Shaw is the mover and shaker behind it.

"Katherine Mackedanz, Statewide Health Improvement Program (SHIP) coordinator for Todd County told me about the possibility of getting a SHIP grant to help plant a garden," Shaw said. "I talked with the superintendent, teachers, students, head start, kitchen staff and the FACS (Family and Consumer Science) teacher."

Shaw also asked her husband, Bill, to help coordinate the garden project and accept the job of chief tiller. They consulted with former Master Gardener Arthur Pratt.

"We talked for an hour on the phone and another two hours when we visited his home."

Pratt gave the Shaws lots of tips and advice about starting a community garden. He also gave them many gardening books including "Rodale's Ultimate Encyclopedia of Organic Gardening," which became the go-to resource when Pratt, because of ill health, was no longer able to advise the effort.

The initial plan was to plant a full acre garden on school property south of the building. After walking the local football field to help visualize the size of an acre, they decided a half acre would be enough for the first year.

Steve Pauly's Environmental Science class got involved in planning the garden's plantings. They used a computer program to plan the layout, including the positioning of companion plantings, a natural method of controlling pests.

"We planted basil with the tomatoes and marigolds in the cabbage," said Brenda Wachlin, who along with Ember Daley, served as the weed patrol. They were paid to help care for the garden in the summer months. Brenda was relieved when the irrigation system was installed.

"We bucketed water to the garden before that," she said.

"The biggest expense was the $1,100 for irrigation," said Shaw.

That covered the piping, six spigots and a timer which automatically watered three times per week.

Community members and the Gardening Angels garden club helped out in the busy summer months and could harvest food, as it matured, for their own use as well as share it with others. Kids in summer school and, once school started in the fall, in the after school "Hangout" helped out in the garden.

"We'd spend a hour or so in the garden each day, as weather and time permitted," said Shaw, who in addition to running the after school child care program is the community education coordinator, Drug and Violence Prevention coordinator, helps organize youth football and the school census and lunch programs. In her spare time she's working toward a degree in child development. She also came up with novel work incentives in the garden. "We paid $25 for each worm the Hangout kids picked; $100 for each assembled rock pile of a particular size," she said. There were also bounties for cabbage butterflies and potato bugs. The special money printed for the project was redeemed for toys and treats at auctions held every two weeks.

The organic approach to gardening produced a bountiful harvest with more than 400 peppers reaped in the first picking. Delaney Kapphahn was recognized as "the pepper queen."

"I love picking peppers," she said. Students got to take peppers home, along with onions, tomatoes and potatoes.

The school's agriculture class got involved with digging three wheel barrows of Yukon Gold potatoes. While the class knew that Yukons are often used for French fries, none of them knew what turnips, also planted in the garden, were or how they are eaten. The garden's turnip crop was exceptional and Shaw explained that turnips can be eaten raw or cooked and mashed, often with butter, salt and pepper.

At the end of the growing season, the garden still had bushels of tomatoes, the turnips, carrots, squash, brussel sprouts, chard and new little heads of cabbage growing where the large heads had been harvested. Tomatoes, onions and peppers were used in chili served in the summer food program. Peppers and onions punched up the flavor of fajitas. Tomatoes topped soft shell tacos, and salsa is yet to be made, both in school classes and in a community education class. Turnips will be served in the school lunch program. The FACS class will use the garden's produce in recipes for students to sample.

With a successful first year, plans are underway for next year. Pauly's Environmental Science class did soil sampling to determine if the soil needs adjustments. This year's applications were limited to dried cow manure compost and mulch. "We sampled the front, middle and end areas and took the samples to Todd County Extension for analysis," said Pauly. They'll learn the results before next spring.

"We'll plant more carrots and more onion sets next year," said Shaw. "The Gardening Angels are going to go into the classrooms next Arbor Day and make seed tapes," she added, explaining that small seeds will be spaced and folded into strips of tissue paper which will make planting easier.

Alan Hanson's greenhouse class has offered to start seeds for the community garden. Parent Lind Powers, who put up her own greenhouse last year, has saved small pots and got a good deal on potting soil. Green Acres, a Clarissa retailer, gave started plants at cost this year and has offered to do the same next year. Pauly has offered to look for a used tiller for the garden project.

Next spring, it's likely that the whole school will be watching for blossoms on the eight apple and four plum trees planted on the edge of the garden. They'll also be eager to build on the lessons learned in the community's first communal gardening effort.