Just two years ago, a courtyard enclosed by the walls of Whittier Elementary School in Wheaton was sitting untouched and unused.
But members of the parent teacher association's beautification committee saw potential in the space and since have garnered almost enough financial support and donations to complete an outdoor classroom by early June.
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The space will include five planters filled with vegetables, more than 100 plants, about a dozen benches arranged in a semicircle for teaching and picnic tables. Other features -- some of which are already installed -- include rain collection barrels, an experimental landfill area, an arbor and trellis and a butterfly garden.
Committee members and teachers hope the space will increase students' contact with nature and provide them with more awareness of environmental issues, all while giving them a chance to be outside during the school day.
"We've always wanted to somehow plant vegetables at the school and to teach the kids how to grow vegetables at their own school," said committee chairwoman Carrie Dorn.
"The goal is to teach the kids that their food comes from the ground, not necessarily the grocery store," she said.
Last May, the school was awarded a $2,000 grant from the Whole Foods Kids Foundation that was used to turn the space into a "learning and edible" vegetable garden for students, Dorn said.
Four raised soil beds were installed, each with its own name. They included "The Principal's Pizza," with tomatoes, peppers, basil and other vegetables the school's Green Club used to make a pizza they ate with the principal; "Beans and Greens" with lettuces and green beans; "All Roots" with potatoes, carrots, beets and parsnips; and a "Three Sisters Garden" with corn, beans and squash.
The pizza garden will be replaced with a "Salsa Garden" this year and the fifth bed will include broccoli and asparagus, which are both harvested in the fall.
To connect to the community -- which was a requirement of the grant -- the students gathered vegetables from the garden from August to October and donated them weekly to the People's Resource Center in Wheaton.
Dorn said the committee members were so excited with the progress of the learning garden they decided to pursue other grants.
Last fall, the school received more than $600 through the Illinois Department of Natural Resources Schoolyard Habitat Action Grant Program, which will allow for the purchase of native plants to establish a pollinator garden.
Those plants will be installed this spring with the help of students, Dorn said. Plants also have been donated to the project by Wheaton Nurseries.
In addition, an Eagle Scout candidate from Wheaton Warrenville South is working on the design and construction of an information kiosk for the garden. Dorn said the cabinet will store extra seeds and laminated information cards teachers can use to help educate students about the plants and insects in the garden.
Next week, Bruss Landscaping is donating labor and Lurvey Landscape Supply is donating construction materials to excavate and prepare the site. Eight tons of steppingstones and two tons of limestone screenings will be installed to create garden paths.
Both companies found out about the committee's efforts to beautify the space through Come Alive Outside Chicago, an organization that encourages private companies to work with public and nonprofit organizations to give people more opportunities to do activities outdoors.
Dorn said it's been overwhelming how many other people have offered to help with the project without the committee even asking for assistance.
"This has become more of a passion for people to get back to the basics and teach our children how to grow food," she said.
"Everyone I talk to is just very excited about the project and wants to get involved. We're incredibly grateful."