Blue Jay Garden

A large new garden is rising at the edge of a woods at Cambridge Elementary School. It will be a place to play with science, eat new things and dig in the dirt, say those who have worked for more than a year to get it built.

A lot of Cambridge-area adults and kids have had – and will continue to have — a hand in its creation and inaugural season.

Inside the Blue Jay Garden’s picket fence, that will be painted next fall under the direction of CES art teacher Sarah Krajewski, 15 raised wooden beds are starting to fill with herbs and vegetables planted by students. The responsibility of caring for all that will shift in June as local day camp groups take over watering, weeding and picking. In the fall, students will finish the harvesting.

This week and last, CES students were setting early season plants under the watchful eye of Georgia Gomez-Ibanez, a longtime volunteer who coordinates the school’s environmental education program and who sits on its garden committee.

Unlike a prior garden at the back of the school that’s now abandoned, the new garden is in the thick of student activity. Principal Chris Holt said it’s intentionally steps from two playground areas and the school forest.

The old garden “felt hidden,” said Ben Timp, co-chair of Cambridge Farm to School and also a member of the garden committee.

The new garden’s back gate opens to the school forest trailhead, a shady space with benches and picnic tables for teachers to use as an outdoor classroom. Also steps away is a new prairie garden being relocated from elsewhere on the school grounds, and not far away is a pond where frogs are awakening in spring chorus.

Gomez-Ibanez said the total planting area is about the same as in the old garden, but it’s broken into many smaller individual beds that are easier for children to reach into. And the space between each bed – about four-feet – is much wider than before.

“I think it’s going to be a much nicer space,” said Gomez-Ibanez as she watched first-graders dig last week in a low bed of dirt that she said has no purpose except to find worms and “to have fun digging…because they love that.”

Having fun in the new garden, Gomez-Ibanez, said, is as important for children as learning about the produce that’s growing and about the need to care for it.

“It’s about growing kids more than growing carrots,” Gomez-Ibanez said.

In the garden are many fun exploratory features – including a cedar wood-and-Plexiglass rootarium built by community members Matt Gent and Griffin Roberts. In it, you can see roots as they’re growing down into a narrow, enclosed space filled with potting soil. There’s also a sensory table that last week was filled with shells; its contents will change regularly. And there’s a pollination station built by Timp and a weather station built by Gomez-Ibanez with a rain gauge and thermometer.

In recent weeks, children enrolled in the Cambridge Community Activities Program’s CAPCare after school program have been creating art to beautify the space. When finished, they’ll install the sculpture built out of recycled plastic milk jugs.

Holt said this marks a resurgence of the school’s garden, which in its prior location had begun to come back after a period of neglect. “When I started at CES, the old garden was filled with weeds,” Holt recalls.

As produce began to replace those, plans were set in motion to use what was harvested for Chef in the Classroom and Try it Tuesday programs, and to integrate the space with school’s curriculum as a true outdoor classroom.

Then, the school garden committee began eyeing the new site at the edge of the school forest, that they thought offered better sunlight and drainage and was more accessible. The committee includes school staff and administrators and representatives of CAP, PleasanTime child care center in Cambridge and Cambridge Farm to School.

About the same time, work was progressing on cutting trails, managing buckthorn and making other improvements in the forest.

What followed was a broad school and community effort to bring the garden and forest together.

Holt particularly credits Jacy Eckerman, co-chair of Cambridge Farm to School, for seeing the process through. He called her “our big ideas gall, fundraising coordinator, web promoter and everything else.”

The Cambridge PTO, Cambridge FFA Alumni and the Cambridge School Board “have also showed support in many different ways,” Holt said.

“The old saying that it takes a village to raise a child – it takes a village to raise a garden for children, too,” said Gomez-Ibanez.

“This journey has been amazing. We are planting the seeds to grow a brighter future...literally,” Holt said.

Among the produce that will grow in the new garden this year are sugar snap peas, carrots, lettuce, broccoli, cherry tomatoes, cucumbers and pole beans. Many of those will become snacks for summer daycamps put on by CapCare and by PleasanTime. In exchange for alternating weeks tending the summer garden, children in those programs will get to eat most of what ripens in those months.

Holt called the tending of the garden by CAP and PleasanTime over the summer – something they also did in the old garden — “an awesome community connection.”

Some of the produce will be stored until fall; a few of the new garden’s beds have a specific school purpose.

The contents of the Stone Soup garden bed — potatoes and other root vegetables — will, for instance, be made into soup in the fall by kindergartners.

Fourth-graders, meanwhile, are planting an American Indian-themed Three Sisters bed with squash, bean and corn. The corn will be dried and made into cornbread in the fall. The squash, Gomez-Ibanez said, will become soup as part of a “Chef in the Classroom experience,” and also will be used for Try it Tuesday.

Some practical new things can be found in the new garden – like a wooden vegetable washing station built by community member Nate Zinzow, with an aluminum sink base from a Habitat for Humanity ReStore. Users will hook up the sink to a hose extended from the school. Water will drain into tubs underneath and be re-used for watering.

A lot of hands went into building the garden itself.

Community members Tyler, Drew and Collin Holzhueter and Jane and Jim Johnson constructed the raised beds out of lumber cut by Gomez-Ibanez. Brian Gunnelson, Gomez-Ibanez and Timp built the fence.

Six Cambridge High School seniors, under the direction of CHS technical education teacher Larry Martin, have been hard at work in recent weeks framing a wooden tool shed. The materials for the shed were donated by the Fort Atkinson Habitat for Humanity ReStore and Tom Hensel, yet another community member, donated the gravel for the shed’s base.

“A lot of the boys attended school here; it’s kind of like their way of giving back,” Martin said. “This is something they can come back here years from now and say ‘I did that.’”

“This is the school I went to; it’s great to be able to come out here,” said CHS student Kade Vethe.

“It’s nice to see so many people involved,” said CHS student Blake Britzke, who said his class benefits by being able to complete a project out in the community.

Adult community members also chipped logs felled in the school forest into mulch that’s been laid thick over the garden, on top of cardboard that was gathered over a few months in Gomez-Ibanez’s classroom. The cardboard, it’s hoped, will help keep out the weeds.

The new garden effort also needed some money to pay for construction and other supplies.

For that, Jennifer Scianna, director of the Cambridge School District’s Severson Learning Center, won a $2,000 grant from Whole Foods Markets’ Whole Kids Foundation.

The grant is awarded to schools and community organizations for “garden spaces that will have positive effects on student health,” Scianna said. “The fact that the (CES) garden will expand the opportunities for students to interact with fresh food and different foods really hit their target of crafting educated eaters.”

Scianna said there are great benefits in children consuming and seeing consumed the produce they’ve planted. And, she said kids are better for just being out in the fresh air.

“There is neurologic research that shows the benefits for kids who get to be outside experiencing nature,” Scianna said, adding that “this space provides teachers with a beautiful venue for their classes to have a change in scenery.”

A key part of this past year’s process was surveying teachers, said Timp. The goal, Timp said, was to create a space with a strong enough curricular tie-in that it would continue to be used for many years, regardless of turnover in teachers, school administration and key volunteers.

“There was definitely lots of advice taken,” Timp said. “We wanted this to be a program that exists into the future.”

Gent called the new garden “a true gem of not only for our school district, but for the community.” He said it was “an honor,” to be asked to help with it, adding of Gomez-Ibanez that he “would do anything she asks because she does so much for our kids. Her endless dedication, knowledge and skill is such an asset that when she asks for anything I jump.”

Erica Lien, program coordinator and school-aged teacher at PleasanTime, said most of her summer day campers go to CES. They get the opportunity, she said, to be part of the full growing season. “It’s a chance to see the whole process,” she said.

CAP Director Lesli Rumpf agreed that it’s “pretty cool” that many kids will get to experience spring through fall. “We get to experience it full circle,” Rumpf said.

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