Sow it, grow it, eat it, know it!
This is the motto of Classroom in Bloom, a one-and-a-half acre non-profit educational garden in Washington State’s Methow Valley. The organization is dedicated to deepening the connection between people and the land through school and community gardening with a farm-to-school focus. “Our mission is to inspire kids to eat and grow healthy food, and to connect with nature and be in the outdoors,” says Executive Director Kim Romain-Bondi. “It’s an outdoor classroom where they get to learn science, art, and literature, but also how to dig in the dirt, how to wonder and explore the scenarios around us. We’re able to share a natural setting with them, and it resonates equally with a kindergartener or a senior. We can talk about climate change and soil composition with a senior, or about respecting a spider and where fruits come from with a kindergartener. To have all kids in a space where they can touch, and observe, and help with everything around them, it’s magic!”
Each classroom from garden-adjacent Methow Valley Elementary school visits Classroom in Bloom each week, helping to plan, plant, care for, and harvest the garden’s produce throughout the year. “Our educational programs are focused on teachable moments,” says Kim. “If a kid is harvesting cabbage or potatoes and finds worms, we can shift and talk about worms! We allow ourselves that flexibility so that we don’t have to be rigid and we can encourage exploration and observations throughout every lesson.” Many students from the neighboring middle and high school also participate as part of horticulture, construction and culinary elective programs. Students of all ages are given ownership of the garden through long-term projects, seasonal responsibilities and plant, compost and produce sales that the kids help organize and operate to raise funds for programming.
“We call it a garden, but it’s actually more of a farm! All of these students, K-12, they work,” says Kim. “They come out to the garden for lessons, but then they also turn around and dig in the dirt, turn the compost, put it on the beds, prep for winter, prep for spring, they put plants in the ground, they tend to them. They really do all the work. It’s a labor of love. It’s their place.”
Growing a Garden
Classroom in Bloom was started in 2004 when two local farmers Anaka Mines and Lexi Koch approached the Methow Valley School District with the idea of establishing a schoolyard garden between Methow Valley Elementary and Liberty Bell Junior/Senior High School. The area was just an expanse of dirt, grass and brush, but soon transformed thanks to lots of helpful hands. Students planted cover crops, built a deer fence, and planted the first trees and shrubs. Community members came out to help build a gazebo for lessons and gathering. By the end of that first year 226 students had visited the garden and the first produce had been served in both schools' cafeterias.
Nineteen years later, Classroom in Bloom is an established non-profit 501(c)(3) with multiple employees, a Board of Directors, and standards-aligned curricula. The garden has expanded to include more acreage, more fruit trees, a greenhouse, root cellar and a cob pizza oven where tasty pies with garden toppings are made every year. The organization currently welcomes over 520 students annually, implements a year-round composting program for both schools and continues to supply food to the cafeterias.
Farm to Cafeteria
Classroom in Bloom currently produces over 6,000 pounds of produce each year. Much of that is used for snacking and cooking with students, but a large portion of the bounty is used to supply the elementary and junior/senior high school cafeterias. The food services team creates from-scratch meals using garden produce, providing a daily salad/snacking bar full of greens, carrots, radishes, snap peas and more along with dishes like chicken noodle soup using onions and potatoes from the garden. All of the food waste is returned to the garden via a composting program with daily collection.
“The kids eat all this healthy food coming right out of the garden. Everything from raspberries to lemon sorrel to green beans and melons,” says Kim. The organization’s programs are centered around the belief that kids love to eat what they grow, and that by involving kids at every level of the farming process Classroom in Bloom can establish positive relationships with fresh food for kids early on in their lives.
Embracing the Seasons
Classroom in Bloom’s students are exposed to the garden through the entire cycle of the year, embracing the seasonal changes of north central Washington and experiencing the life cycles of each plant grown.
During the winter months, garden classes take place in the greenhouse until temperatures drop too low, and are then moved indoors. Content shifts to cooking demonstrations, seed saving, garden planning and more. Potatoes, squash, beets, onions and other foods with long shelf-lives are stored in the root cellar for use in the cafeteria throughout the winter months. Beets are cooked, juiced and used as natural paint for art lessons. Students help harvest seeds out of the garden’s pumpkins, and then use the rest of the squash to bake pumpkin muffins from scratch! In 2021, some 40,000 pumpkin seeds were saved and exactly 1,500 pumpkin muffins were enjoyed by all.
When spring arrives, students get to work preparing the soil for planting, sowing seeds, composting, tending the fruit trees and other projects to help the garden wake up from winter. Time is spent admiring and observing the abundance of flowers and pollinators with poetry writing at “sit stations,” five senses journaling and more. Many starter plants are sprouted for the annual end of spring plant sale fundraiser, operated by the 5th graders. This spring, high-school students started a three-sisters plot with rows of corn, beans and squash provided by Methow Valley Seed Co-op, and all ages learned about the traditional Native American companion planting method. The crops will be harvested in the fall, with much of the seed returning to the co-op for sale. This year’s corn will be dried and ground to make tortillas and tamales in the winter.
Once school is out for the summer Classroom in Bloom switches gears to host five weeks of summer camp with different weekly themes. Campers help harvest summer crops and care for the garden, conduct science experiments and plug into their creative sides with cooking, arts and crafts. The garden hires teen interns to help with instruction and garden maintenance during the season. This year Classroom in Bloom was awarded a Schools Out Washington Summer Grant to partner with neighboring school districts and expand its summer garden programs in Okanogan County, helping diversify academic and enrichment opportunities for students throughout the area. Five schools joined in the fun and established camps with varying focuses.
As school starts again in the fall, the garden gets busy with harvesting! Students of all ages help reap harvest, enjoying the process of pulling up carrots, beets, potatoes, turnips, and collecting greens and other veggies. Fruits are collected from the orchard and students begin to monitor the temperature in the root cellar to determine when food should be brought in for storage. High school horticulture students begin harvesting and drying the flowers and herbs from their tea garden. They’ll make tea blends with them this winter. Soon it’s time for the annual farmer’s market and veggie sale, where fourth graders sell a variety of the garden’s produce to the community, while high school culinary students offer sample dishes made with the harvest to customers. Once the temperatures start to drop, it’s time for students to help prepare the garden for winter and begin planning for the year ahead!
With years of lessons learned in the garden, Classroom in Bloom is now focused on sharing their resources and support with neighboring school districts. “We recently partnered with Okanogan Conservation District to secure grants to get gardens in all eight school districts in the county. As of this year all eight have school gardens up and running and they’re growing leaps and bounds!” Classroom in Bloom has assisted the districts with funding for supplies and trainings for all teachers, and curriculum ideas for the garden. “We focus on helping them build a garden that works for them and their goals,” says Kim. “I could teach anyone how to build our garden, but we want schools to have the tools to build a garden that is uniquely exciting for their students and for teachers to feel supported going into their garden without having to plan lessons from scratch. Our big dream now is to fulfill those obligations in the coming years so that everyone is thriving through their school gardens.”