Methow Valley Elementary School students show produce grown in the Classroom in Bloom program.

WINTHROP - On any given fall day at Classroom in Bloom, you might peer across the school grounds to see a class gathered and listening to some words from their teacher.

Classroom in Bloom is a non-profit organization whose mission is to inspire students to grow healthy food and connect with nature. The project centers on a 1.5-acre garden on the Methow Valley School District campus.

Executive Director Kim Romain-Bondi and a farm manager keep the garden and organization running at full capacity throughout the year, with a board of directors that meets monthly to advise, strategize and build vision for the programs.

Classroom in Bloom was started in 2004 by two farmers and naturalists, Anaka Mines and Lexi Koch. Their vision to build a student-led school garden in hopes of increasing science lessons in an outdoor classroom and nutritious foods in school lunches has grown over the years.

Currently, more than 5,500 pounds of food is harvested each fall and served as snacks throughout the day, and delivered to the school cafeteria for lunchtime meals.

“With the success of our school garden here in the Methow Valley, we want to share our lessons learned and knowledge gained with schools and programs throughout the region,” said Romain-Bondi.

She worked with Kim Kogler of the Okanogan Conservation District to build the Okanogan Garden Network and help schools throughout the county develop their own school gardens.

“We want to make sure schools interested in garden programs have the resources and opportunities to build their own programs that fit their schools’ models and their teachers’ interests,” Romain-Bondi said. “We live in rural Okanogan County where agriculture is a way of life; we want our students to have the skills and interest to grow food and protect the environment as future leaders of our communities”.

“Each week throughout the spring and fall months, every elementary student will visit their outdoor to learn and work,” said Mia Sundstrom, Classroom in Bloom education coordinator. “They may compare the texture, contents and smell of different soil samples. Perhaps they build a model watershed and learn how plants help keep a river clean. Or they may vanish to secret spots where they create art inspired by the world around them.”

When the garden is producing, teams of kids separate to dig potatoes, plant garlic, pull weeds, pluck cherry tomatoes or haul compost in or out of the garden.

They sampled melon and cucumbers varieties in September. In October they learned the value of carrots fresh from the ground and local tree-ripened apples, pears and plums.

Their snack requests include fresh produce – chives, mint, cabbage.

No matter how many times garden leaders tell students that Hungarian hot wax peppers are very hot, certain students will have to try one and spend the rest of the time coping with that painful decision.

Each hour-long class has a planned itinerary, but sometimes a child will sneak away to check on a sunflower seed planted in hiding, others will sing while harvesting carrots or some will use fallen scarlet runner beans as currency.

Lessons may focus on horticulture, science, culinary arts or history.

Jane Strader, the teen program coordinator, works with teachers at the high school to integrate lessons from the classroom directly into the garden environment. She helps students explore how plants grow and what universal elements combine to create life and energy in the garden.

Students learn the science behind pollination, the elements of living soil and the role of plants in the ecosystem.

Organizers said teenagers live through their bellies, so creating craft recipes and delicious garden dishes to process the garden’s bounty is a large part of the programming.

After outdoor garden beds are put to rest for the winter, students will grow greens in the greenhouse, design and build learning spaces in the garden, and explore various methods of working with plants both indoors and out.

They’ll spend the winter cooking delicious garden meals and letting their creative selves imagine, design, research and prepare for the upcoming spring, organizers said.

This is part of an ongoing series on school gardens.

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