Located in Ashland, Missouri, just a few miles from the Missouri River, the Southern Boone Learning Garden (SBLG) serves more than 850 pre-k through 4th graders each year with a range of garden-, environmental-, and nutrition-focused lesson plans. Although the garden is surrounded by rich farmland, in 2007 two Southern Boone moms noticed that, despite their community’s agricultural roots, there was a big disconnect in students’ understanding of where their food came from. “Some had only ever seen apples in the store or in a McDonald's Happy Meal, so they had no concept of a tree or an orchard growing the apples,” says Hope Sickmeier, SBLG’s garden educator. “The two mothers decided to start an after-school program to alleviate this problem, and the garden was started!”
The first program was a small after-school club that served thirteen elementary students, and the organization’s reach has grown exponentially since then. In 2017, the Southern Boone County School District took the reins of the Learning Garden. The original garden club program is still running strong and now reaches thirty children in both the fall and the spring. But the Learning Garden has also been integrated into the school-day schedule, with each kindergarten through fourth-grade class currently visiting the garden monthly for garden-based and environmental lessons. Through collaboration with the district’s classroom teachers, the Learning Garden’s staff are able to link their work to Missouri learning standards and curriculum. “They learn how to plant, care for, water, weed, harvest, and prepare their own food! We learn the importance of our bees and other pollinators, as well as growing native plants and flowers to attract those bees. I have built a curriculum for grades K-4 and also teach a life-skills class for students with disabilities at the middle school,” says Sickmeier. All of Sickmeier’s lesson plans and a collection of garden recipes are free and available on the SBLG website.
“We have approximately one acre of space with many raised beds, two hoop houses with the capability of growing food year-round, and a smaller hoop that has beds inside and outside the hoop, and we will be adding a greenhouse to our space in the near future,” says Sickmeier. “The garden itself is an ever-changing space. We have rebuilt beds and added beds made from leftover culvert materials, cinder blocks, and rocks.”
“The produce generated in the garden is used to feed all the kids as they come for classes. During the summer, when students aren't in session, I spend time harvesting and preserving for the next school year. I make pickles from the cucumbers, apple chips, apple sauce, and apple cider vinegar from the apples; tomatoes are shared with families or made into salsa to share with students later. Right now is the ideal time to grow and harvest leafy greens so we can eat salads with each class, as well as pickled beets, carrots, and radishes!” When the garden’s yield is particularly high, SBLG partners with the district’s food service Opaa! to incorporate the produce straight into the cafeteria and school lunches.
In addition to eating the produce, SBLG’s students learn to grow plants used to make products they can sell to the community for fundraising. “Herbs are dried to make herbal salts, or saved for making bath salts like our lavender and mint, and we grow luffa squash,” says Sickmeier. “We start our luffa early, but they are very frost-tender, so they can't go out until that threat is gone. We begin harvesting them as they dry on the vine but since they have such a long growth time, we have to harvest early and dry them inside the hoop. Once the luffa are dried and peeled, they are cut into four- to five-inch sections. Fourth grade is learning about ethnobotany, and we used that theme to create our fundraising idea. Using the luffa, mint, and lavender that we grow in the garden, 4th graders make bath salts, add a luffa, package, label, and sell them as gifts. All proceeds go back into the garden. In the previous six years of the project, we have raised $6,000, and we are on track to do just as well this year!”
“Our students absolutely LOVE the garden,” says Sickmeier. “It truly is one of the highlights of their day to be able to come out and learn and eat, of course! They all say they wish they could come more often, and some teachers do bring them out during nicer weather to read, do math, or release butterflies that they have successfully hatched in their classrooms into our pollinator garden. One of my favorite stories came from a parent who shared that when one of my students had gone to her doctor, she was asked if she was eating her vegetables, and when her mom said that she was not, she proclaimed, ‘I eat my vegetables in the Learning Garden!’ Knowing that we have made an impact like that is very satisfying.”
This summer Southern Boone received two big boons that will help shape the future of the program. “In early summer, a friend of mine who works at Wal-Mart asked if I wanted the remainder of their garden supplies that they were removing from the shelves since most people already had their gardens in. We were gifted with seed-starting trays, thousands of seeds, soil, labels, heat mats, and grow lights. We had enough to share grow kits with every child attending summer school and have many left for next season! This summer, we were also fortunate to receive funds from the American Rescue Plan Act. We will be using those funds to purchase a greenhouse and all the supplies needed to go with it. With that in place, it frees up space inside our garden classroom. We can start our seedlings earlier and possibly grow even more food! The community is behind us 100%, and that is definitely a wonderful thing.”