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You wouldn't expect to find a garden in a football stadium. But tucked away in the southwest corner of Riverside-Brookfield High School's Shuey Stadium is an approximately 1,200-square-foot garden that has been supplying students and staff at with fresh vegetables, flowers and herbs this fall.
The garden, funded entirely by grant money, was the idea of English teacher Kathleen Harsy. A few years ago, Harsy decided that a school garden could foster student learning and help the school operate in a more environmentally sustainable manner.
Teaching sophomore English, Harsy noticed that students who had been part of the School of Environmental Education (SEE Team) interdisciplinary program for freshmen seemed to have some capabilities many other sophomores didn't.
"I noticed as a sophomore teacher that the students who were coming in from the SEE Team seemed to have a different awareness and ability to focus, particularly with non-fiction reading and discussion," Harsy said Monday as she took her Advanced Placement English language and composition students out for their weekly visit to the garden.
When the renovation of the RBHS was complete, Harsy's initial idea was to create a rooftop garden. When that proved too expensive and impractical, Athletic Director Art Ostrow volunteered some space in the football stadium and the End Zone Garden was born.
Ground was broken last November and the first crops were planted this past spring. Now the harvest is bountiful. Harsy and other teachers planted cherry tomatoes, heirloom tomatoes, lettuce, zucchini, yellow squash, green beans, kale, Swiss chard, parsley and Jalapeno peppers to name a few. They also planted herbs, such as basil, and a number of different flowers.
While the carrots didn't turn out so well, most of the vegetables flourished.
A group of teachers, including Harsy, John Fields, Tom Dignan, Jame Holt, John Izaguirre and former RB English teachers Kirstin Bacon a Cherise Lopez played important roles in creating the garden and tended it all summer.
Harsy got advice and help from alumna Freyja Conrad of Brookfield-based Dig Right In, a landscaping firm specializing in sustainable designs, in deciding what to plant and how to lay out the garden.
"Freyja helped us tremendously," Harsy said. "She picked out things that were colorful and produced at high yield. She's been so patient and kind with us."
An $8,000 grant from Grainger Corporation got the project going, and a $2,000 grant from Whole Foods was used to create an irrigation system, a must during this year's scorching summer.
In addition, the Class of 2012 donated $1,350 as part of its senior class gift, and the Class of 2009 donated $300. The school's foodservice contractor, Quest, donated $250 to purchase seeds and starter plants.
The vegetables from the garden have made their way to the school cafeteria this fall most often showing up in salads and soups. And now, during the abundant fall harvest, students and staff are encouraged to take home some of the freshly picked vegetables for their own dinner tables.
Monday afternoon Abby Louthen, one of Harsy's students, was picking tomatoes.
She eats them alone or with cottage cheese and will use some of the larger tomatoes to make salsa.
"I also just like to eat the cherry tomatoes," Louthen said. "They're really good."
Her class has been coming out to the garden once a week since school started.
"The first week we picked for the cafeteria," Louthen said. "We picked a ton of tomatoes and we picked some kale and some peppers."
But it's not all field work. Harsy uses the garden in her teaching. Students keep nature journals to develop their skill at observation and writing. And the students enjoy the chance to get outside in the middle of a school day.
"I actually am fond of nature journaling," said senior James Landahl. "The garden provides lots of inspiration for creative writing, poetry. It's a break from the stuffiness of the inside."
Principal Pamela Bylsma believes it is important to get high school students outdoors.
"So many modern teenagers are disconnected from nature with the focus on technology and video," Bylsma said.
Next year students will take on more of the responsibility for doing the work in maintaining the garden.
"Next summer the idea is that the National Honor Society will be involved in this," Harsy said.
Senior Victor Mezera is a big fan of the garden. He too loves the tomatoes. Nothing tastes like a fresh grown tomato, Mezera said.
"The tomatoes from the store may look beautiful, but that smell of a fresh garden tomato, the taste of it, how intense and favorable it is," Mezera said. "I've taken plenty of the tomatoes home. I look forward to coming out and helping with the garden after school. I love working in the garden. I think it's awesome that the school would do this."