Irving Elementary: How Does Your Garden Grow?

Saturday May. 1st, 2010

Susan Floerchinger

With garlic, spinach and winter wheat all in raised beds at Eighth and Alderson, Irving Elementary is somewhat reminiscent of the first recorded school garden in the United States; Roxbury, Massachusetts, 1891. During the first two World Wars it was considered a patriotic duty of the students to work in the school garden. Since the age of technology, schools have focused primarily on preparing the students in this area and the school gardens have fallen by the way-side. Irving Elementary started their school garden in the Spring of 2009, when the fifth grade class learned to test the soil for nutrients under the direction of volunteer Gallatin Gardener Club member, Don Mathre. The third and fourth graders planted the garlic and spinach last fall. The school also has apple and plum trees on the north side of the building that were planted three years ago.

Kristin Sutton, a teacher at Irving came to a parents’ meeting (PIC, Parents of Irving Children) and expressed an interest in creating a garden and green house for the students. She asked if they had any money to put toward this dream. Sarah Deopsomer, current PIC treasurer and parent, Kristin Sutton, and parent Rosemary Burton put their heads together to formulate a grant request, and applied to Lowes Tool Box for Education Grant and received the largest amount that Lowes has ever given out in one lump sum: $5,000.

Heather Musselman, a teacher and parent of two Irving students, has been working closely with MSU landscape design professor and parent, Page Huyetter, and with the design class from last semester to create a master plan for the six raised bed gardens each measuring three feet by seven feet and the surrounding area. Their focus was on an outdoor classroom with picnic tables, establishing a space for a future greenhouse, a composting and recycling area, an area for the tool shed, and other planting areas for more edible plants. Ms. Musselman has also been working with the MSU department of Architecture’s community design class for the future greenhouse as most greenhouse kits are not suitable for Montana’s winter climate.

Funds for the garden and other related materials have come not only from Lowes, but the Food Co-op’s 4% Day grant, the Gallatin Valley Garden Club and the Welch’s Grant. Heather states, “We are always on the lookout for opportunities for money for this project.” Some funds from the grants have gone for tilling, enriching the soil and supplies to build the raised beds with a timer for watering. They are currently looking for ways to obtain mulch for the beds, some one to organize the pick up and drop off of that mulch, a construction person who can oversee some of the infrastructure and organize work parties, along with volunteers to deliver lessons in the garden during the school year and help maintain the garden over the summer months. Other goals include recommendations of hardy, edible bushes and plants, ways to incorporate the students’ art work into the garden, as well as enhance areas that are unsuitable for planting with paths, hard scaping under the bike racks, fencing and a bench under the big pine tree.

According to the National Gardening Association more than 107 million households across the nation say that schools should provide students with garden-based learning. Research indicates that children when spending time outdoors in a natural space have reduced symptoms of attention-deficit disorder and ADHD. Students retain information better when they use more than one style of learning and can share their knowledge with others. The gardens teach nurturing skills, introduce healthful foods, and provide a way for them to improve themselves and give back to the community. Children also develop a sense of respect and caring for all living creatures and the environment. Students learn to work cooperatively with others, practice patience and develop self-esteem as well as a sense of pride. Plant-based education produces positive growth for children in a number of areas including social development, physical and psychological health. Students who do hands-on work in the garden, also engage in making sense of what they are doing. Active learning is not only “hands-on” but “minds-on” as they develop creative thinking and problem solving skills.

Rosemary Burton asks the question, “Who can’t love an edible school garden? I’m always looking for ways to get involved in my kids’ school and this was one easy way for me to help out. As time permits, I plan to do more, as there are many resources out there for school garden endeavors.” This fall activities such as harvesting from the orchard and late fall crops will take place along with composting, planting of bulbs, garlic and spinach as well as putting the garden to rest. Irving School hopes that the garden will become part of the greater community and aid the teachers with their existing curriculum. They also hope that more MSU students will become involved due to the close proximity of the garden to the college, and other groups like MOSS, who have summer groups and teach children who will utilize their gardens.

The greatest obstacles for these programs are time, inclement weather, insufficient funding and the lack of help. Heather Musselman mention that they are looking for people to come to a meeting to discuss the possibilities around plantings, work parties, and other possibilities for the garden. If you would like to donate your time or resources for this project that is shaping our young people to think of others and to be better stewards for the environment please call her at 587-8309,or send her an email at

We all know that it takes a village to raise a child, and if we are looking to the youth of today to make things better for the future than we all need to step up to the plate and give something of ourselves to ensure that future.