Some Cortes students get instruction on how to correctly harvest lettuce from Laura Ellingsen

Education is dirty work at Cortes Island School

Learning: School enhances lesson plan with soil, seeds and compost

At Cortes Island School, students aren’t afraid to get their hands a little dirty in the name of learning.

The school, with the help of countless committed and ambitious parent and community volunteers, has seen the seed of an idea for a school garden sprout and bloom into an abundant year-round harvest.

Students at Cortes School are learning more than numbers and letters; they are learning how to care for nature.

Three years ago students in Grades 7-10 came up with the initial garden design, considering and creating a food sustainability plan for the school.

The school’s Parent Advisory Council, with the assistance of school staff, then sought out grant funding and donations to help raise the necessary funds to build the garden.

Today, the garden is a bustling hub of activity in the school community and an inspired way to bring countless lessons and subject areas to life for students from kindergarten to Grade 9.

Math and geometry lessons make real life connections as students have to measure and calculate the garden area to determine the number of beds and how they can be situated. Gross motor skills are developed through constructing beds, building fencing, and digging. Science lessons abound from learning how to determine the soil PH, pest identification, and how to compost. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg (lettuce – if you pardon the garden humour).

Plantings are managed to coincide with the school year. Students calculate the seed to harvest time, identify appropriate planting groupings, and juggle the varied requirements of each plant.

There are leeks, peas, broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, kale, lettuce, carrots, raspberries, grapes, strawberries, beets, celery, pears, apple trees and a greenhouse with cucumber, cantaloupe, tomatoes and peppers… and undoubtedly more.

The garden has evolved over time, both in its plantings and its sophistication. Drip irrigation runs on four zones and timers are used to coordinate the appropriate water usage.

But beyond the obvious math and science lessons, and physical benefits of being active outside and connecting to nature, there are social lessons to be gained as well.

“Students are developing a context and a connection to where their food comes from and food security,” says Brent Wilken, school principal. “They have tremendous joy when they get to harvest what they plant.”

Students work in the garden one day a week on a rotational basis and it’s not uncommon to see multiple age groups working cooperatively together. In fact, the senior class has ‘garden buddies’ with the junior class of kindergarteners, Grade 1s and Grade 2s.

“It’s fun that we get to go outside and see how things grow. I like to experiment with what stuff tastes like,” says Grade 6 student, Lily Allen.

Produce from the garden is used as main ingredients in the school’s hot lunch program where wholesome, homemade items such as vegetable soup and pasta with homemade sauce are regular menu offerings. While not all students choose to get hot lunch, all students get healthy snacks from the garden, and the opportunity to sample the fruits and vegetables they have grown.

Kindergarten to Grade 2 students have also dried beans, pumpkin seeds, and made applesauce and apple juice.

When harvests produce more than the school can use, the school has an agreement with the island Co-Op where they can display and sell their produce. Students learn about market gardening, setting up the display, determining price, producing signage, and invoicing. Students also save seeds in the fall, replanting what they need in the spring, and selling the rest.

Community connections are what has brought this garden to life.