A tray of 18 dirt-filled cups sits on the ledge of a large picture window in the library of Davenport Central High School. Wooden sticks with the names of various veggies and herbs, including jalapenos and tomatoes, stand up in some of the cups.
While the seedlings might not look like much now, they eventually could become a part of a new student-run vegetable garden on the terrace outside Central's cafeteria.
Pablo Haake, 17, Kelsey Hovey and Caitlyn Oliger, both 16, and Hannah Hansen, 15, are among students who have been working to create the garden, which they dubbed "Sprouts and Scholars."
“We wanted a name to represent ourselves and what we were doing,” Kelsey said.
The students are working with Central's food service manager, Linda Lowder, to use some of the garden's veggies in the cafeteria.
“We do have a lot of students that probably don’t have access to healthy whole foods, and this is really kind of encouraging them to have a healthy lifestyle,” Pablo said.
Added Caitlyn, “Hopefully, this can teach (students) the basics of how to grow a garden on your own. Hopefully, we can just make this an overall learning experience for everyone.”
Central is the only high school in the district that has a student-run garden. McKinley Elementary School has a garden that is part of the science curriculum.
Gail Heninger, a teacher in the school’s talented and gifted program who is overseeing the project, said students for years have suggested putting in a garden on campus but plans have always fallen through.
This time, the students are taking swift steps to turn the idea into a reality, she said.
“I think any time you get to see kids involved in a project and actually plan something from start to finish, I think there’s something rewarding about that,” Heninger said.
The students got a little help from a grant through Farm to School, an organization that connects K-12 schools and local farms with the goal of serving healthy meals in school cafeterias and improving student nutrition.
The $800 grant helped to pay for the wood to build garden beds, soil and other supplies.
Students spent time with different volunteers, including a teacher from J.B. Young Intermediate School, to help them create a blueprint for the garden.
Sherry Staub of Davenport, a volunteer who helped launch the local chapter of the national Farm to School initiative, also helped students figure out what supplies they needed and how the garden should be built.
The students want to plant tomatoes, onions, garlic, peppers and herbs such as basil, oregano, chives, parsley, cilantro and thyme.
On Nov. 16, the students plotted out the garden and installed six 4-by-8 raised wooden beds, which were crafted by the school’s wood shop classes, on the terrace.
The students hope to begin planting in April or May when the weather warms.
In the meantime, they are experimenting with the tray of seedlings in the library to learn more about what plants they want to use and how much water and sunlight they need to thrive.
“We’re just dipping our toes in the water,” Hannah said.
Kelsey added that if all goes well, the seedlings could be transplanted into the garden. She said the group hopes to expand the garden and add more beds in the future.
The students said there are specific health codes and checks the students must complete in order for the vegetables and herbs to be used in the cafeteria.
For example, they must keep track of the temperature of and type of soil they use, as well as note which produce came from which plant.
Pablo said he anticipates that the vegetables will be used to make salsa.
The students hope the garden will be embraced by the whole school.
Caitlyn said the group wants to open up use of the garden to different clubs and classes. Science classes could use some of the plants in their lessons, and the ProStart class, a chef apprentice program, could use some of the vegetables and herbs in their cooking.
Pablo said different classes could “adopt” a plant or two and help make sure it is watered.
“We want this garden to be something that the student body takes pride in,” Caitlyn said.
Heninger said Central wants to apply for another grant to purchase a grill and picnic tables to place near the garden, as well as a shed to hold supplies and equipment.