By Terry Lehrke, News Editor
The Pierz Family Gardens, a community garden started years ago, is not only a place to grow fresh produce, but has become a learning-rich environment as well.
This year, the school rented enough plots for a 275-foot long, 50-foot wide area, where students have created a growing, learning and fruitful environment.
Not only have they learned and taught younger kids about gardening, but when they reap the harvest, other students in Pierz will also reap the benefits of fresh-grown produce — as it will be served in the Pierz school cafeterias.
Tuesday, the group picked the first fresh green beans that cafeteria staff planned to preserve until the start of the school year.
Under the supervision of Pierz Ag and FFA program adviser Pat Tax and with lots of help from Kevin Happke of Rolling Hills Greenhouse, the students have created several areas in their garden.
The group received a grant for purchasing milkweed, which led to the start of a pollinator garden, where plants conducive to attracting butterflies and bees are growing.
Another area, planted to create interest, is called the “Rainbow Garden,” made up of colored flowers that radiate from the red to yellow, purple and out to blue morning glories.
In addition to the green beans, potatoes, cabbage, cucumbers, celery and more, a “Pizza/Salsa Garden” features varieties of peppers, tomatoes and onions and another area holds fresh herbs and fruit.
Steven Fyten, who will be a sophomore at Healy High this year, has been experimenting with a couple of rows of tomatoes — pruning the leaves to allow more sun to shine on the fruit. He’ll compare the fruit on these plants with the fruit on those not pruned, to see what the effects are.
Wanting to get into viticulture someday, Fyten is also in charge of growing a section of grapes.
Kyra Engen, who graduated in the spring and will head to Hamline University this fall, works at the garden every day. Mondays, she works with community education class of elementary students in grades 2 – 6, who take care of their own plot.
Engen said the kids enjoy gardening. “One of the little guys was asking Ms. Tax if we could do it next year, already,” she said.
Tax said the horticulture class had started with a plot in the gardens. The garden is blocked off into 25-foot by 25-foot plots. This year, the city gave the OK for the students to use more than one plot, giving them the 275-foot by 50-foot area they work in.
The city waters the area, but the group pays for the water used.
The students show up every morning to tend the garden, pulling weeds, staking plants, whatever is necessary.
Support from the community has helped the garden grow as well.
Just a few examples include shingles from Loidolt Lumber, used to not only keep weeds down around the pepper plants, but to draw in heat, which the plants thrive in; Happke has given advice and cultivates the potatoes and Pierz Cooperative has supplied some fertilizer.
Tax said the community has provided invaluable help and is also very interested.
“The community is jumping in,” said Tax. “People literally drive around the garden really slow and talk to the kids.” Some, she said, stop to lend a helping hand.
Pierz Supt. George Weber said he’d been talking about engaging the students with the garden since the city developed the Pierz Family Gardens years ago.
“In the end we owe Pat all the credit for moving it forward and working with her students to do the work,” he said.
As far as the future, Weber said there were several options for the garden, over and above using the produce at the school.
“I think the more sustainable model would be one in which we are able to sell and deliver products to residents of our area who do not have the time or land to plant and work on their own garden, but love the idea of fresh homegrown food,” he said. “I am excited about that prospect over the coming years.
Tax said the city is looking into having a farmers market in Pierz and if that should happen, the students would be selling the produce they’ve grown.
As a part of the system of agricultural education, Weber said the school was looking at adding a greenhouse, that he said could serve as a teaching and learning focal point in conjunction with the garden plot.
“It is important that we teach the technical and current practices in the broad field of agriculture. Pat has been instrumental in moving the curriculum and expectations for our students in that direction,” said Weber. “So we will use the gardens and the greenhouse to support that initiative which also works well with the technology initiatives we have under way in our schools.”
The plan is to infuse genetics, biotech, soil data and a host of other elements to the instruction, Weber said.
In addition to other grants received from Minnesota Agricultural Education Leadership Council and most recently from the Morrison County Area Foundation, they are eagerly awaiting the results of an award grant the school is a finalist for — a $25,000 grant from Monsanto to build that greenhouse.