A small courtyard tucked away in the back half of London Middle School in Wheeling reinvented itself this year as a vegetable garden, extending learning beyond the classroom walls.
A hint of the garden's success stood out in the front office. During one of the last days of summer school, a bowl of freshly picked tomatoes sat out, the better for faculty and staff to enjoy the fruits of their students' labors.
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Students, too, are enjoying the season's harvest. After picking some of their ripe produce, students in the life skills class headed to the home economics room to cut into the produce and give it a try.
"My favorite is the watermelon," says eighth-grader Luis Rodriguez, while his classmate Alondra Ramos promotes the tomatoes.
"They're good," she says.
London is one of the latest Northwest suburban schools to see the educational -- and community -- benefits in gardening. Students and staff are now participating in the Daily Herald Giving Garden program.
Among those already actively gardening and contributing to local food pantries are Hoover Elementary School in Schaumburg, Windsor Elementary School in Arlington Heights and Maryville Academy in Des Plaines, to name just a few.
"This building is 10 years old, and we've always looked for something to do with that space," says Diana O'Donnell, London Middle School's assistant principal.
Enter a committee of faculty and staff from Wheeling Township Elementary District 21, who last fall had put a garden on top of their wish list.
After huddling with the Arlington Heights-based HandsOn Suburban Chicago, teachers were able to pull together the resources and volunteers to have their garden built in the long forgotten courtyard.
Together with custodians from the school district, they built four raised beds in the sunny courtyard, which contains gravel to keep the weeds down and is surrounded by sixth- and eighth-grade classrooms.
"Our students have been involved in many phases of the vegetable garden," said Brenda Theisen, one of the lead teachers involved with the project. "When the beds were being built, they helped spread the rocks and pour the soil into the beds."
Students also were involved in growing seedlings using indoor mini-greenhouses. A volunteer Master Gardener came in last spring to demonstrate paper-towel gardening and to explain the importance of spacing seeds.
In April, they planted outdoors, choosing hardier vegetables that were able to withstand the cold temperatures, before planting the rest of their seedlings in May.
Their list of crops was ambitious. In all, they planted beets, lettuce, kale, Swiss chard, tomatoes, beans, radishes, onions, watermelon, strawberries, peppers, cilantro, cucumbers and zucchini.
Organizers posted a schedule so that teachers and their summer school classes were able to sign up to help with watering, weeding and harvesting -- and most took them up on it.
"My students have learned so many lifelong skills through working in the garden," said special education teacher Megan Libberton.
Now that the vegetables have begun to come in, her students are not only tasting them, but learning to cook with them as well.
"Excitement for the garden has spread through the whole building," O'Donnell said.
Already this summer, London students have harvested a few strawberries, onions, Swiss chard, radishes, tomatoes, kale, cilantro and zucchini, and donated some of the produce to the Wheeling Township food pantry.
"We are grateful for their efforts," says Julie Villareal, general assistance director for Wheeling Township. "Families always appreciate fresh items as wonderful supplements to the non-perishables they receive from our pantry."
O'Donnell hopes that as more produce comes in, they will be able to donate to the District 21 food pantry run in collaboration with OMNI Youth Services Community Centers.
Located at 101 Wolf Road, the food pantry is dedicated to serving school families in need, from the communities they serve, including Wheeling, Mount Prospect, Buffalo Grove and parts of Prospect Heights.
"The kids were so excited to be part of this project," Theisen said, "and never seemed to view gardening as work."
Even with this summer's extreme heat and drought conditions that demanded even more watering than usual, the students made the garden grow, helped by teachers and community volunteers.
"This is our first year and we all realize that we have a lot to learn," Theisen said. "But it is great for our students to come together to do something that gives back to the community. To me, this is the most valuable lesson."