Passing on more than a green thumb [UPDATED]Published 10:00am Thursday, August 9, 2012 Updated 10:00am Thursday, August 9, 2012
With a little sunshine and tending to by those who care, a magical thing can happen. A seed can grow into a fruitful plant. Years ago a “seed” was planted, and over the course of several seasons and continued support from the community, the “Otter Garden” has flourished. Amy Beske was key in the beginnings of this venture, and she continues to be.
She probably did not know that growing up appreciating her mom’s green thumb with flowers would influence her so much. She likely wasn’t totally aware that vegetable gardening all those years with her father-in-law would be something she was so moved by. But it did, and she was. The love of gardening is ingrained in Amy Beske, and she is making a point of sharing her enthusiasm with others.
Preparing the Soil
About 6 years ago, second grade Fergus Falls teacher John Demuth (working with the alternative learning program at the time) noticed Amy and her 8th grade science students working around the school building with flowers. This was part of what Amy was integrating into the earth science curriculum. John and Amy thought it would be fun and interesting to try to expand this idea and include more students, more curriculum, and more plants. Looking around the school grounds to find some usable green space, they noticed an open area across from the soccer fields.
Getting permission from principal Dean Monke and business manager Mark Masten was easy. The problem: no funding. This did not stop forward progress. The ALC students were ready and willing to build garden boxes, each costing about $200 in materials. Amy and John wrote grants and letters, and money was secured from local businesses answering the call for help (placards now don the finished boxes). Grants also came through (including the MN Dept. of Agriculture as well as locally, the District 544 Foundation), and several area service organizations donated money. The local Garden Club and local Eagle Scouts helped with getting the garden plans set and moving. The city if Fergus Falls helped bring water to the site. It really did take a village to raise a garden.
Students from Amy and John’s classrooms have been the worker bees in bringing the garden to life each year. In the fall, Amy’s 8th grade science students test the soil for ph, and nitrogen, potassium, and phospherous levels. They also plan what will be planted that year. In the spring, both classrooms get the seedlings started in the sunny corners of their classrooms. Second graders parent the flowers, and the 8th graders mentor the veggies. When the time is right, the science students and Mrs. Beske take the process to the next phase: hauling dirt and getting the starter plants securely in the ground. When the end of the school year rolls around, there is a sign-up for second graders to join in the summer fun.
Throughout the summer, approximately 30 students (typically 5-10 eighth graders and about 25
second graders) meet weekly with Amy and John at the garden. Additionally, senior high paraprofessional Karen Orcutt has been a valued volunteer, as well as sharing some delicious recipes, according to Amy. Every week in the garden there is work to be done, particularly with weeding. In conjunction with the work, at every garden meeting there is a lesson, a story, a snack and even a game. Younger students love the games, especially the vegetable version of “Duck, Duck, Grey Duck” where veggie names such as “onions,” “carrots,” and “squash” replace the usuals. “Vegetable Golf” is another creative game all enjoy, as well as “Red Rover,” and having water fun with the sprinklers on hot days. Amy loves the interaction amongst the students. “Eighth graders are wonderful mentors,” she says. “They take the second graders under their wings. They will find insects… and just fun stuff that makes you glad to be outside.”
Amy continues to learn herself. “I’m a novice out there just having some fun.
I still have a lot to learn, but gardening gives me great joy — it’s a whole lot of fun to see what you can do and you just hope you pass a little of that on to the kids.”
The “Little Red Hen” had it right: those who help do the work deserve to enjoy the bounty. Applying this theory, those who help tend to the Otter Garden are welcome to reap the harvest. In the later weeks of summer there are often two days per week of meeting at the garden — one work day and one “pick day.” On “pick day,” students and families come to share in the produce. The list of vegetables is long: onions, carrots, kohlrabi, radishes, jalapenos, green beans, purple beans, radishes, peas, kale, spinach, lettuce, cucumbers, various squashes, tomatoes, cherry tomatoes, pear tomatoes, and more. Although there is a great variety, there isn’t usually a great quantity. Often Amy and John will supplement with their own garden goodies so there is enough for families to take a little home. Many students will get to taste vegetables and herbs they have not tried before. This is a highlight for Amy. She adds with a smile, “It’s fun for the younger kids to give ‘haircuts’ to the herbs.”
Gardening partner John knows Amy is an asset to the Otter Garden program. “Working with Amy has been a blessing! The kids love her gentle personality and her insights into what is happening as the plants grow,” John notes. It’s not always smooth sailing (every gardener knows!), but this doesn’t dampen Amy’s spirits. John explains, “Every year we have a little damage done from the local deer. Amy makes it a learning experience for the kids by making it a detective game, having kids gather the evidence as to what kind of animal could have done the damage.”
Beyond the veggie sampling, herb haircuts, and detective antics, there is something else going on. Students are outside and in tune with nature. Students are discovering what hard work and persistence can accomplish. Students realize they can be self-sufficient, and take something through a process, with patience, care, and attentiveness. And to think — all of that with no digital effects, no clicking of a mouse, completely “unplugged.” Amy hopes this love of nature and gardening becomes instilled in the students who are involved with the Otter Garden. “We want them to learn a good work ethic and not be afraid to sweat, get dirty, work… be self-sufficient. Most of us can do this in life – given a little space and a little science,” she says. “We’d like more interest so it keeps going. I think it’s so important learn how to care and provide for our-selves. That’s a life lesson that we all should know.”
If you pass by the Otter Garden, you will see something special. This is a place where not only plants are growing, but students, too. And as long as the sun continues to shine and the tenders continue to tend… magical things can, will, and certainly do, happen.