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Students get their hands dirty with garden volunteer

Fourth-graders learn about the gardening process, from planting to weeding

SPOTLIGHT PHOTO: NICOLE THILL - Gail Christensen, center, works a group of fourth-graders in Kristy Larson's class, in the rooftop garden at Otto Petersen Elementary School, Wednesday, May 4. Christensen outlined a small area for the students to sow onion seeds in one of the school's raised garden beds. Fourth-grade students at Otto Petersen Elementary School are learning to get their hands dirty with the help of a gardening volunteer who's been visiting weekly since February.

With the help and expertise of Gail Christensen, a St. Helens home gardener who grew up an organic farm as a child, students are learning about the agricultural process from beginning to end.

If you ask Christensen and Kristy Larson, a fourth-grade teacher at Otto Petersen, how the volunteer partnership came to be, they'll both tell you it's a funny story that started off as a joke.

On Facebook, Christensen shared a post about the importance of school gardens, and Larson, her neighbor and personal friend, jested that she could help Christensen find a school garden to volunteer at if she was interested.

Much to Larson's surprise, Christensen said she'd love to do that.

Since then, Christensen has been at Otto Petersen every Wednesday from 12:30 to 3 p.m. working with the fourth-grade students in the garden. Groups of eight from each of the five fourth-grade classes spend half an hour in the garden with Christensen.

SPOTLIGHT PHOTO: NICOLE THILL - Fourth-grader Devon Estirline carefully sows onion seeds into a small trench that was dug into to the soil Wednesday, May 4. Estirline and his classmates helped water the seeds after they were planted.“She's really gone the extra mile," Larson said, adding that she also provided the students with their own gardening magazines. “She's jumped in full force and it's been wonderful.”

When Christensen began volunteering in February, the beds needed a lot of work. She had students help every step of the way, from pulling weeds to treating the soil with compost and lime. Then she had students help with planting seeds and watering.

On Wednesday, May 3, small groups of students worked with Christensen to pull kohlrabi plants, a type of cabbage, they had planted earlier in the year, which had died. They also inspected radishes and pea plants that were beginning to flower or bolt.

After that, the groups used trowels to sow onion seeds in a small section of one of the garden beds.

On slow days when there isn't much to do but wait for plants to grow, Christensen has also had the students help pull weeds on school grounds.

Larson said she's heard nothing but positive feedback about the project. The biggest benefit she's seen is that students are excited to learn about growing their own food.

Christensen said she sees that as a huge benefit, too.

“When you know how easy it is to just do it yourself, and you have some understanding of that, it's important to understand where your food comes [from] and how how all that stuff works,” Christensen said.

Devon Estirline, a student in Ceanna Hedges class, said he has previously grown peas and beans at his grandma's house in Washington. He said he enjoys gardening at school and tracking the progress of each plant.

Others, like Noemi Padilla and Tanner Cannon, said they've enjoyed learning more about planting and how to grow their own food.

The rooftop garden beds were built when the school was constructed in 2010, but haven't been used to their full potential, Larson said. She added that it's difficult for teachers to take their classes out to the gardens on a regular basis with a full load of daily lessons. Having a volunteer who visits on a routine basis once per week gives the students something to look forward to, she explained.

"The kids love it when it's their turn to go," Larson said.