February 01, 2023

Farm to classroom table: Fulton High School garden to provide food, lessons

FULTON, Ill. — When Fulton High School students return to school, they’ll be greeted by a garden in bloom and full of fresh, organic and colorful fruits and vegetables.

A former grassy lot on the north side of the gym is now yielding an abundance of produce and, eventually, lessons in agriculture.

The “urban farming” project was inspired and planted by FHS family consumer science teacher Carolyn Meurs, but it’s been a combined effort between students, staff and local businesses and organizations.

The garden will provide students and a future FFA chapter with hands-on learning space for experiential education — and some deliciously fresh garden produce.

After the location of the garden was determined, Meurs and a small team got to work on making the gardens grow this year.

Science teacher Tim Johnston and his environmental science class tested the garden space. Jeff Spencer Excavating removed the sod and brought in gravel at no cost.

Funding for the lumber of the eight raised garden beds was provided by Central Bank, and Jason Snyder’s industrial arts class built the waist-high wood beds.

Science teacher Jen Pepper donated a composter, and science teacher Stacy Gates wrote a grant to the Whiteside County Soil and Water Conservation District Education Foundation, which recently yielded two rain barrels and $1,000 for the garden. The soil was purchased with a CF Industries grant.

Meurs has been a teacher at FHS for three years and credits her upbringing on a hobby farm in Kewanee as inspiration for the project.

The garden infrastructure was taking shape by the end of the school year, but planted at the start of summer break so produce would be ready by the time school was back in session.

She’s been weeding it by hand since no pesticides are used, and the elevated garden beds ensure that the food is mostly safe from neighborhood critters. Garden planters full of colorful zinnias attract bees and other essential pollinators.

Meurs intends to use some of the produce in her classroom, with tomatoes for spaghetti and pizza sauce, and peppers, onions, tomatoes and jalapeños for pico de gallo.

Cherry tomatoes will be picked for the lunchroom’s salad bar, and perennials such as rhubarb and asparagus will be harvested after two years of growth. A strawberry patch is close to yielding fruit, and cucumbers are currently filling the vines.

She’s trying her hand at growing potatoes and is using companion planting in one of the beds. Compost and worms will eventually be added to the soil.

Other ideas in the works include a tool shed with gutters and spouts to capture rain in the barrels and possibly some chickens and a coop, though a bit more research is needed.

There is ample space for growth, ideas and contributions — even as the garden thrives in the first year on the lot.

“At FHS, we continue to focus on skills students need after high school,” said Principal Bob Gosch. “Mrs. Meurs has done a great job teaching the students skills as our students are cooking nearly every day.

“Adding this next part to help students learn about growing their own vegetables and harvesting is the next step, so we are excited for our students to begin working with the garden.”