A garden program at Walter Murray Collegiate is growing right alongside the cherry tomatoes and carrots it produces.
The seed for the school garden was planted almost a decade ago, but over the years it has expanded both in terms of planting space and the number of students who are getting their hands into the dirt.
Teacher Kristine Levesque said there are now 16 large garden boxes that provide a special learning opportunity for students in courses including Alternate Education Work Studies, math, science, outdoor education, wellness, and commercial cooking.
"We saw a lot of applications with our classes," said Levesque, who worked with colleague Janet Christ on the program during the past four years. "In general, many kids these days don't know where food comes from and how to cultivate and grow their own food. Last year was the first year we reached out to the other areas to try to grow the program more.
"We are also working with the nutrition program, so a lot of the food that we planted this year has been going toward the nutrition program, things like cherry tomatoes, beans, carrots, peppers. It's the first year the nutrition program has received the food from the garden. They have been going around delivering packets of fresh veggies and dip for students."
The garden was established in 2012 with funding from a community garden grant and support of teachers Christ, Warren Sandor, and Amber Espenant. Students in teacher Craig Stensrud's wood shop classes constructed the first garden boxes, and a few years later built an additional set that increased space for planting.
Beginning next year, the program will grow again thanks to a $3,000 grant received from the Whole Kids Foundation. The funds will be used to purchase a high-tunnel greenhouse that will also add two garden beds and, more importantly, extend the growing season in the spring and the fall.
The program's connections to learning and curriculum are many. Organic, locally sourced, and readily available vegetables are a perfect fit for commercial cooking. In Science 9, one section specifically talks about plants and sexual and asexual reproduction. Students investigate germination, seed growth, where do seeds come from, how do plants grow, and the purpose of the fruit plants produce.
"For math, it's really useful for probability and statistics," Levesque explained. "We have PAA (practical and applied arts) in our Math 9 class and there is an agriculture section in PAA that I pull directly from. We started a lot of our plants in our classrooms. The students grow it all from seed; they take care of it, do the transplanting, and basically grow their plant. Then we transplant the plant outside."
While most of the produce grown in the program's planters located inside former tennis court along Taylor Street is typical garden vegetables, students in the Indigenous Studies class grew tobacco that will be harvested, dried, and used for gifts to elders and knowledge keepers when they visit the school.
"We have been trying to incorporate Indigenous perspective. There is the tobacco, but we also grew using the three sisters method this year. We had squash, beans, and corn all growing together so that relationship follows along with the traditional growing style," Levesque said.
Student involvement is the most important component of the project. The hands-on learning in seeding, planting, weeding, and harvesting is an enjoyable opportunity for many and the interest it generates often translates into students choosing agriculture- or horticulture-related topics for personal projects because they want to learn more.
With the work involved in the garden plots shared among several classes, the investment in the greenhouse structure and additional plots thanks to the Whole Kids grant is another step in continuing to connect students to culture, environment, and education through the garden.
"We spent many, many hours planning out what we are going to do, how we are going to grow from this and just trying to evolve it. We have a lot more space out there, but the biggest thing right now is just time and having enough people involved," Levesque said.
"It feels like it is still in its infancy. Even though it has been going for a number of years now, it hasn't reached its full potential."