Local families are adopting garden beds at Orchard Ridge Elementary this summer to keep a beloved educational program alive despite the school's closure due to COVID-19.
Founded in 2014 with grants from the Madison Community Foundation's Community Groundworks initiative, ORE's Green Team facilitates planting and educational opportunities around the school's gardens. Each grade at ORE has a dedicated garden bed and students typically play a key role in selecting, tending to, and harvesting the produce grown on school grounds.
"They get to feel that they have a part in deciding what will grow and also the opportunity to contribute to something really meaningful (and delicious!)" says Joshua Ludke, ORE's art teacher and leader of the Green Team. "It also connects them in real ways to understanding about where their food comes from and gives them a great opportunity to choose healthy foods."
Normally, each grade signs up for a planting day during which students plant seedlings they've grown in their classrooms. Due to the pandemic this year, the Green Team had to solicit volunteers to plant, water, and weed the beds along Gilbert Street and Russet Road.
The community response did not disappoint. Each bed has an assigned family and some participating families even offered to lug water to the garden sites when the pump that normally serves the garden was temporarily turned off to stem the spread of COVID-19. The pump's water supply has since been restored thanks to help from Alder person Christian Albouras.
"The kiddos are just so giddy to be back on the school grounds," Ludke says. "And it gives families something meaningful to do together."
A unique partnership with Oakhill Correctional Institution in Oregon, WI has also helped keep the Green Team's garden program afloat this summer. Oakhill, a minimum security prison in Oregon, WI, helps inmates reconnect with society by fostering seedlings that are ultimately planted in community gardens throughout Dane County, including at ORE.
"Our students usually plant and grow some things from seeds in their classrooms," says Ludke. "This year all of our plants came from Oakhill because of the school closure."
With grants and other funding from area businesses, ORE's Green Team has grown immensely over the past several years, enabling the school to install a dedicated water pump for the gardens and create an outdoor mosaic stage. Grants have also allowed ORE teachers to learn more about how gardening helps kids connect to their learning environment.
"We studied everything from actual gardening science and planting techniques to how to use a bicycle-powered blender to make freshly picked fruit and veggie smoothies," Ludke says.◼
Megan Handley is a contributing writer and coordinates the publication of The Grapevine.