A flourishing new school garden in Columbia Heights is one of many that have sprouted in Minnesota.
A first-grader was thinning the carrot bed when she made a shocking discovery. "Miss Stuenkel," she cried out, "something's wrong with the carrots!"
Kristen Stuenkel, Columbia Heights community education director and the engine behind the School District's new schoolyard garden, hustled over to inspect.
"Oh, no," she reassured the worried girl. "Nothing's wrong with those carrots. They're just a purple variety!"
Surprise and intrigue are the order of the day at Columbia Heights' newest classroom, the garden between the high school and the Columbia Heights Family Center on 49th Avenue NE.
The new space is one of 30 or so new school gardens that have blossomed in Minnesota during the past year. That's more than double the number of such plots that existed previously.
This sudden crop is due to the $47 million State Health Improvement Program, or SHIP, that offers grant money to school districts and other community organizations to fight chronic disease, encourage exercise, promote healthy eating and discourage tobacco use.
Signed into law by Gov. Tim Pawlenty in 2008, SHIP allows local citizens to choose their own route toward a healthier community. Some communities have added more treadmill computer workstations, for instance.
The notion of a garden classroom is what caught on in Columbia Heights. The district's SHIP grant, about $63,000, will be used mostly to train classroom teachers on how to incorporate the garden into their teaching repertoires. About $20,000 or so has already been used to buy the plants and install the infrastructure. An additional $5,000 from Lowe's paid for a picnic table and a sunhouse/garden shed.
Other amenities include a cedar pergola draped in grapevines, a composting station, several raised beds, a sizable fruit tree orchard and sitting benches and stumps. The garden, about three-quarters of an acre in size, was designed by volunteer Master Gardener Bill Ohland, a Blaine resident.
"In May, this was a grassy field," said Stuenkel, waving her hand.
On a recent Friday morning, a legion of soon-to-be second-graders flooded the new garden as part of Columbia Heights' summer program, Adventure Club. Ogyen Choezen, 7, was investigating the sunflowers when a fat dragonfly landed on a leaf right in front of her.
"Oh, my gosh, it looks like it's got a human eye on its head!" she shrieked. Over by the raspberry bushes, Zach Carder, 7, reached over and plucked a red raspberry from its hold.
"It tastes like a strawberry, but not like a strawberry," he observed. "I never ate one before."
Junior Solorzano, 7, opened up the compost bin and wrinkled his nose.
"This is, like, mud for the garden," he said.
Stuenkel said that once the school year begins, she hopes to see teachers from all disciplines -- including math, social studies, art and theater -- using the space.
"I think the orchard would be great for a production of 'A Midsummer Night's Dream,' " she said. "Can't you just see Puck running amongst the trees?"
The classroom teachers will be free to use the garden's bounty in their lessons. The family and consumer sciences classroom is mere steps from the garden, and that teacher has already declared that no tomato will go unpicked on her watch.
Already, Stuenkel has made vegetable soup with her summer school learners, using only what was ripe in the garden, plus water.
"The kids were amazed," she said. "One young man didn't even want to try it, but those that tried it had seconds or even thirds."
Alyssa Ford is a Minneapolis freelance writer.