SHORELINE – At St. Luke School, fifth-graders are stewards of a new hydroponic tower, where lettuce they’re growing was recently harvested for the lunchroom salad bar.
“It was fascinating. And incredible,” student Amanda Diaz wrote in an assignment explaining how she cleaned a plant’s roots, bound them and placed them in the hydroponic garden in March.
“Today I learned that people invented artificial dirt,” another fifth-grader, Colin Ralls wrote, adding that the hydroponic tower looks like “an alien death ray.”
Next, the class will see if tomatoes grown indoors turn red and if they taste the same as those that are grown outdoors, said fifth-grade teacher Donna Ramos.
“It’s easy to go up to the garden and see God’s creation. They really see the connection with Catholic social teaching,” Ramos said. “These kids will educate their families and parishioners. They are excited to make a difference.”
Students in all grades at St. Luke School take care of the crops grown in the Shoreline school’s learning garden. The garden is incorporated into areas of study such as math, science, social studies and language. Photo: Courtesy St. Luke School
The indoor garden is a complement to the Shoreline school’s learning garden, an outdoor classroom cared for by students.
Principal Rick Boyle, the driving force behind the garden, said it is “absolutely” a place for students to nourish mind, body and soul, “where all students can get their hands dirty at one time; where they can see a project through from start to finish,” he said.
“The garden is a reflection of who we are and how we take care of ourselves and others,” he added.
The garden took root in 2016, along with the goal of integrating it across the curriculum as part of the school’s path toward International Baccalaureate program accreditation, said Alicia Sullivan, the school’s marketing director.
A St. Luke student helps harvest crops grown in the school’s hydroponic tower. Photo: Courtesy St. Luke School
While offering students practical skills, the garden is also a place to stir the imagination, she said.
When preschoolers return to the garden in the fall, their eyes grow wide when they see the red flowers and tall vines of the scarlet runner beans that came from the seeds they planted, Sullivan said.
“They are in awe,” she added.
Small-scale farming, big-time rewards
In a class assignment, St. Luke fifth-grader Colin Ralls wrote about his experience with the school’s new hydroponic tower.
Each grade level cares for a bed in the garden (a garden coordinator manages maintenance, schedules and supplies) while St. Luke’s garden educator Emily Wilkins collaborates with teachers to weave the garden into areas of study. Math may incorporate graphing plant growth; science, soil analysis; social studies, discussions about seed origin; language and literature, writing about observations.
Formal class visits occur during the busy spring and fall months; currently a group of students is studying decomposition, trying to get a handle on how much waste the garden’s worm bin can successfully compost. What they discover by recording their observations may lead to additional worm bins and more on-site composting.
The school garden also is a place where students learn to celebrate teamwork, forge ahead through failures and share the fruits of their labor. By being responsible for their garden bed from preparation in the spring through harvest, students directly experience farm-to-table. The students have deep pride in growing food and being able to eat it and share it with others, Sullivan said.
“I’ve never seen so many students eat kale in my life,” Boyle added.
For other schools thinking about starting a garden, it’s important to tie it into the life of the school, Sullivan said, with buy-in from the principal and teachers. “Otherwise, it becomes this thing on the side that nobody has time for,” she said.
“The magic is in the garden,” Sullivan said. “You have to create the space, create the time and create the opportunities for the kids to experience it.”
More than green thumbs
The learning garden at St. Luke School in Shoreline is just one piece of the “green” movement at the school.
St. Luke’s, which has participated in the King County Green Schools Program since 2012, has increased its recycling rate from 21 percent to 61 percent and decreased its garbage dumpster size.
Other eco-friendly initiatives include replacing light bulbs with energy-saving LEDs and keeping an eye on the school’s electricity and heating use and waste. Students also helped stage “Black Fridays” and “a day of no power” movements to raise awareness among the student body about power usage.
Water conservation and pollution prevention efforts are also under way. Students helped install water filling stations for reusable water bottles and worked with the school staff to find and fix leaks around campus. An automated watering system was installed in the garden to cut down on waste.
Students and school leaders are investigating how they can harness solar energy for projects such as powering the school’s water system.
The school’s efforts to protect the environment were honored by King County’s Earth Heroes at School award in 2013. Since then, awards have gone to teacher Paula Konrady, parent Maria Kearney and Alicia Sullivan, the school’s marketing director.
Read about local Catholic schools’ eco-friendly efforts in the May issue of Northwest Catholic.