Photo Courtesy Eatonville School District: Carl Lucas, a student with the Eatonville School District's Columbia Crest A-STEM Academy in Ashford, removes weeds and dirt at the academy's garden as part of the Columbia Crest Garden Program.
Photo Courtesy Eatonville School District: Carl Lucas, a student with the Eatonville School District's Columbia Crest A-STEM Academy in Ashford, removes weeds and dirt at the academy's garden as part of the Columbia Crest Garden Program.

The students at Columbia Crest A-STEM Academy in Ashford, part of the Eatonville School District, really dig gardening, both literally and figuratively. The construction of the garden at Columbia Crest was completed by students, staff and volunteers four years ago. The garden initially was viewed as a way to teach students self reliance skills and to provide snacks for students during the school day.

Over the last several years, the Columbia Crest Garden Program has blossomed into a classroom integrated, standards based educational tool, as well as a community outreach vehicle. The Columbia Crest Garden Program has two main goals: to promote education and to provide a source of fresh produce for the local community. Given Ashford’s distance from stores that sell produce, this is a much needed service.

Ashford is far removed from easy access to fresh fruit and vegetables. The drive from Ashford to the closest grocery store in Morton or Eatonville takes 45 minutes. As a result, the greater Ashford community has to drive farther and spend more money to get healthy food than the average American. Some families just can’t make that drive. By providing a source of fresh, free produce in Ashford, The Columbia Crest Garden Program helps save local families considerable time and money. Instead of having to drive the 45 minutes to the closest grocery store in Eatonville, families can stop by the school, grab some produce and start dinner in under 15 minutes. At over $3.50 per gallon, this is a significant savings in gas alone, not to mention the cost of the produce.

Last year, even with the COVID-19 pandemic, students grew, harvested and donated over 400 pounds of produce to their community. Peas, green beans, lettuce, beets, strawberries, spinach and squash were among the selections of produce available from the garden. This year, students predict that they will at least double their donations to the public. Each grade level has planted and tended its own garden bed. Middle school students oversee their beds and the entire garden, making sure that weeding, watering and general maintenance is performed correctly. By the end of the school year, most garden beds will be ready to start harvesting. The harvest will last all the way through the summer into the next school year. This will provide a constant stream of fresh fruit and veggies to the community and continued educational opportunities in the fall.

Students almost universally appreciate the garden as a motivating tool in their education. They are excited to get out of the classroom and into the garden, especially this year.

“Working in the garden cuts the stress,” student Charlie Smith said. “It’s fun and it’s good to get fresh air, especially with the masks this year.”

Students particularly appreciate how garden assignments provide a real world use of classroom skills, like Teagan Ellington.

“Researching garden methods pushes us to learn how to research, which we need to do in English,” Ellington said. “But then we actually get to use our research. When we find out how to plant and grow something, then actually get to do it, it’s so much more fun.”

Jennavieve Smith expanded on that.

“Sitting in a classroom staring at a computer is boring,” she said. “It is hard to be excited about writing essays for the sake of learning how to write. Doing assignments for the garden is motivating because we know we will get to use our research. Our work will actually help people, instead of just getting us a good grade.”

Even teachers appreciate the garden as a tool they can use to get the most out of their classes. Mr. Carl Hehemann has been using the garden to teach English for three years.

“With the garden, students can see how valuable and applicable research is to their everyday lives.” he said. “Students don’t come to me knowing how to amend soil or what depth to plant a particular seed. They have to find this on their own. They have to research different crops and persuade their classmates that a certain crop or method of growing is superior to another. Students who don’t typically excel in the classroom find success in the garden classroom. Absences have declined, and grades have improved since I have begun regularly incorporating garden lessons into my curriculum.”

The Columbia Crest Garden Program supports nearly every aspect of student education.

To students and staff at Columbia Crest, their garden is not a way to get out of the classroom, it is a way to bring the classroom outside, or perhaps to bring the outside into the classroom. Between helping a community save money and gain access to fresh produce, to helping students engage and apply their more traditional lessons, the Columbia Crest gardening program is helping to grow a healthier and happier community, and the kids really dig it.

There is open enrollment in all preschool through eighth-grade classes at Columbia Crest for fall 2021.  Call 360-569-2567 for more information.