Anne Nagro of Gurnee is a certified Master gardener, but even she had her hands full this month when she oversaw the planting of the Harvest Garden at Woodland Elementary School in Gages Lake.
"It's a challenge when you have 375 (second)-graders," Nagro says with a laugh.
This is the eighth year students have planted vegetable plants, started from seeds in the classrooms, in the school's 100-foot plot located in the back of its campus. And each year, organizers get more ambitious and hope to improve the children's gardening experience.
Their goal, however, remains the same: to raise fresh vegetables for families served by the Warren Township Food Pantry. Since the garden's inception, students have donated more than 2,500 pounds of vegetables.
"We like to talk about the importance of giving," says Woodland Assistant Principal Joan Luxon. "This is a wonderful way to provide for people who don't have access to fresh produce."
Nagro arranged it so that every class of second-graders -- 17 in all -- planted a different vegetable, and that each child had something to plant.
Consequently, their list of vegetables was extensive. They included the traditional tomato plants, cucumbers, green beans, carrots, broccoli, cabbage, yellow squash, zucchini, eggplant and peppers, as well as larger ones, like watermelon and pumpkins.
They also planted asparagus seeds donated to them from a supportive nearby gardener as well as tomatillos, a popular Latin vegetable used to make salsa.
"The expressions on their faces makes it all worthwhile," Nagro says. "And they come up with some of the funniest comments. I just think it's a wonderful thing for children to experience."
New this year was the construction of two rain barrels, which were designed to collect rainwater running from a gutter attached to one side of their shed.
The rain barrels were particularly effective this year with all the rain, enabling the children to water their new crops with the collected rainwater for the first two days.
School officials also built a raised garden bed, using donations from Target, Jewel and Home Depot, which they plan to use for growing demonstrations.
They also purchased a time-lapsed camera with some of their donations, which is capturing the garden's activities from its perch on the side of the shed.
"We'll be able to see not only people weeding and harvesting, and rain falling in the garden," Luxon says, "but we'll actually be able to see plants growing. The students will be able to watch how their garden grows."
Of course, to grow and prosper, the garden will need plenty of volunteers to help with the weeding, watering and harvesting. Parents have stepped up to volunteer, each one taking on a different week, but Nagro and Luxon still seek community groups and Scout troops interested in helping.
"It's a total community effort," Luxon says, "which is really neat to see."
She points to many of the garden's new accessories that were obtained through grants and donations. The shed was purchased with a grant from Lowe's Toolbox for Education program, while the students themselves saved their extra change for the two rain barrels.
Other community contributors include District 50 operations and facilities department, Lake County Farm Bureau, Gurnee Park District, Warren Township, Lake County Soil and Water, College of Lake County, the Ace Hardware in Libertyville, Target and Home Depot stores in Mundelein and Vernon Hills; as well as the TGI Friday's, Walmart, Jewel Food Store and Lowe's, all in Gurnee.