Indoor Gardening in the Dark Winter

As the northernmost state, Alaska has a colder and darker winter than the rest of the country, which also means a shorter outdoor growing season. But at Wrangell Public Schools, educators have figured out a myriad of ways to keep garden-based learning active all year long.

Located about 750 miles northwest of Seattle, Washington, Wrangell is one of the oldest towns in Alaska and is currently home to about 2,500 residents. At the northern tip of Wrangell Island lies the Evergreen Elementary E.A.T.S. (Evergreen Agricultural Testing Site) garden, which is approaching its twenty-fifth year of operation. Started in the late ‘90s, E.A.T.S. was the brainchild of nine volunteer teachers and Master Gardeners who secured financial support from local businesses and organizations, as well as funding from the National Gardening Association’s Youth Garden Grant program (the precursor to KidsGardening’s namesake grant).  These funds were used to purchase initial supplies, equipment, and resources for classrooms.

A raised garden bed with a pinwheel

The E.A.T.S. garden beds with a layer of locally-sourced fertilizer – seaweed collected and applied by students.

From there the garden quickly expanded. An unused greenhouse was moved onto the property, allowing students in this chilly climate to plant earlier in the spring and extend the harvest into fall every school year. “Each grade takes a different part of the greenhouse and keeps it clean and works on the garden in all capacities,” says Evergreen’s principal and former secondary special education teacher Ann Hilburn. “Gardening lessons are taught each year with students working the soil, planting seeds, tending the plants, and harvesting the food.” Today, the E.A.T.S garden produces enough food for students to cook with on special occasions, such as on Open House night where each classroom creates a dish featuring the garden’s produce for their visiting families. Evergreen also hosts a seed and plant sale in early spring and an ongoing houseplant sale set up in the Evergreen Elementary main office. 

Turning on the Lights

In 2020, the E.A.T.S. Wrangell School Garden Committee started focusing on extending garden-based learning into the autumn and winter months. Although Wrangell isn’t plunged into complete darkness like the northern reaches of Alaska, the days are short compared to most areas of the U.S. On December 21, the winter solstice and shortest day of the year, they get less than seven hours of daylight, an insufficient amount for many garden plants in the absence of supplemental lighting.

An indoor tower garden with green plants growing

An indoor tower garden inside the Evergreen grow lab.

Fortunately, thanks to a donation from the Wrangell Cooperative Association, the Garden Committee was able to purchase an indoor tower garden for starting seeds. Following the success of the tower garden, the Wrangell Public School District approved a budget for adding an indoor gardening area with grow lights and supplies to the Evergreen STEM Lab. With the new grow lab completed, students now continue their garden-based learning throughout the school year by tending the tower gardens, sprouting seeds, and tending seedlings in the grow lab under lights. They also care for and observe an indoor worm farm for composting and castings collection. “Indoor gardening is great, but especially for students in Alaska where it gets far too cold to get out and do much gardening until very late in the school year,” Ann says. With grow lights they can start plants inside, still get their hands in the dirt, and have that feeling of accomplishment from helping something to grow. I actually think the grow lights are as beneficial for the students as the plants. They’re kind of like little plants themselves. The extra sunlight in winter is great for them.”

Two teens stand near a white tower with tubes coming out the top

A new seed tower built in 2022 by Wrangell High School seniors for Evergreen’s STEM Lab.

Moving On Up

The success of Evergreen Elementary’s program has inspired Wrangell High School students to join in on the fun. In 2021, two WHS juniors used their grant-writing skills to apply for the 2022 KidsGardening Youth Garden Grant in an effort to get their classmates growing indoors. They were successful! The students used the funds and supplies provided by the Youth Garden Grant to help Ann Hilburn launch a life-skills project for developmentally disabled classmates.

The project revolves around starting seeds indoors each winter and nurturing them into seedlings that can be sold at a student-led plant sale each spring. Ann led teachers and student volunteers in turning a small room near the special services classroom into a grow lab. Seeds were donated by the local hardware store Ottesen’s True Value. “We put in shelving, special lighting, and a work table,” Ann recalls. “We selected and grew flowers and vegetables that grow well in southeast Alaska.”

“Our special needs students learned about the growth cycle and how to plant seeds,” adds Ann. “They became really excited about watching them grow. They kept the plants under the grow lights and experienced the excitement of seeing the first signs of green begin to poke through the dirt. Many had never experienced that before. The students became very attached to their plants, and worked so hard to keep them watered, under the light, and growing. They also compared how their plants were growing, and this became an area of unstructured conversation. It was an amazing time to watch my students grow!”

When spring arrived, the students helped organize their first plant sale. They took orders for their inventory and sold around twenty-five starter plants to friends and family. All of the proceeds were saved to help fund the program the next school year. Soon it was time to shut down the grow lab for summer, but there are plans to resume the program this winter and Ann is hopeful it will continue to grow, just like her students!