CAMBRIA - What do you do when you want to teach your students how to raise healthy plants but your classroom doesn’t have any windows?
Kim Loeper, a science teacher at Cambria-Friesland middle and high school, went to plan B.
For Loeper, Plan B was to make use of the outdoor space located in the center of the school, space that up until last year was overgrown with perennials, trees and shrubs with no one in charge of its care.
Loeper, who taught in the district for six years, says, “I had always looked at that area and wondered why we couldn’t develop a garden there but I was told that no one was to go out there.”
Then one day at a staff meeting the subject of the center court came up. Someone wondered why the school didn’t make more use of it. Loeper saw that as an opportunity to throw out her idea about planting a garden in the court. To her surprise she was invited to give it a try.
Since Cambria-Friesland does not offer agriculture classes, the district offers the opportunity for students interested in FFA membership to be a part of the Randolph FFA. The first step in developing the courtyard was to ask Keith Gundlach, advisor for the Randolph/Cambria/Friesland FFA to come to the school to take soil tests and help evaluate the court for the possibility of a garden.
The courtyard was overgrown with perennials and Loeper put out an offer to the school staff to take anything they wanted before the FFA members would bring in their rototiller to prepare the soil to plant the garden.
“People were eager to salvage the perennials,” Loeper says. “Some even put stakes next to the hostas or other plants they wanted so the plants would be there when they came to dig them out.”
When Loeper arrived to clear out the area, she had no idea how many students would actually come to help.
"Six high school and three middle school students came to help,” she said.
Because of all the preparation involved, Loeper said they got a late start in planting last summer. The FFA donated plants that were left after their annual plant sale in spring. One FFA member, Maverick Guenther, coordinated the planting and he and some other high school students established schedules for watering and caring for the plants as they grew.
“The students really took ownership in this garden,” Loeper says. “When the time came to harvest the produce we had lots of help.”
In summer the students donated most of the produce to the Beaver Dam food pantry. When school started, they picked fresh vegetables every day and delivered it to the school kitchen to make use of it. Staff members also reaped the benefits of the garden by asking for excess vegetables.
“Because we got the garden in so late we only had one muskmelon. The kids were excited to see it get ripe, though, and they cut it up and shared it among everyone involved,” she said.
As spring approaches, she plans to coordinate with the kitchen staff at the school to determine which vegetables will work best in their menus.
Now that they have a year under their belt, Loeper has plans to make better use of it for her science classes. Besides the middle school science, she also teaches a section of high school environmental science and she sees this as an opportunity for some hands-on activities and hopes to eventually develop it into an outdoor classroom.
“We got a grant to get rain barrels and compost bins and we made a rain barrel this fall,” she said. “These things can fit very well into our classroom studies.”
She also hopes to further develop another area of the courtyard.
“Establishing pollinator plants is a big thing right now,” she said. “It’s really important to create habitat that attract bees and butterflies and other pollinators. We could help and at the same time teach the students about the important role of pollinators.”