Students returned last week to the Jen School on the campus of Maryville Academy in Des Plaines just in time.
The large vegetable garden they planted last spring -- which has grown to encompass 29 raised beds -- is bursting with fresh produce, especially tomatoes. In fact, the garden is turning out so much to harvest that the faculty members and staff who usually buy all the vegetables cannot keep up.
And that has led to a new hands-on learning lesson for the students, says Anne Craig, chief academic officer at the Jen School. The school is opening a farmers market from 9 to 11 a.m. every Friday this fall.
The Jen School's mission is to provide experiential learning for young men with academic, emotional or cognitive challenges. A total of 61 students started this school year.
"The garden truly is an extension of the school," Craig says. "It's not just the planting, cultivating and harvesting that offers so many lessons, it's the social, emotional and therapeutic aspects that makes it so successful."
Students opened their farm stand to the public last Friday, when they sold zucchini, eggplant, onions, rhubarb, herbs, peppers, acorn squash and tomatoes.
The garden yielded a bumper crop of different lettuces, spinach and asparagus for the early part of the harvest season, Craig adds, and students even welcomed some watermelon and potatoes.
Even failure can be a learning lesson for the students, Craig says. A blueberry patch needed a more acidic soil to thrive, and students ended up having to transplant the bushes into a different bed.
"I dare say this is probably the first time many of them have ever seen fresh food being grown," says John Gorman, spokesman for the school. "And along the way, they learn the value of nutrition, as well as how to count, make change, and deal with the public at the farm stand."
Teachers at the school have incorporated vegetables from the garden into cooking classes for the students. Those that attended summer school worked to perfect a combination zucchini and eggplant Parmesan dish.
Last November, Chef Rodelio Aglibot from E + O Restaurant at Randhurst Village in Mount Prospect spent a day at the school as a guest chef, working with students to incorporate vegetables into their cooking.
This November, Craig says, staff members are hoping to bring in another celebrity chef to help students prepare a harvest dinner from all of their freshly grown produce.
Opening up their produce to the public comes as something of a boon to Des Plaines residents, she adds, since the city does not have a farmers market, unlike many of its neighboring suburbs. Likewise, residents who drive along Central R oad past Maryville can see the garden and have inquired about its produce.
"The garden has nearly doubled in size over recent years," Craig says, "and we're learning that it offers a lot more than traditional gardening. It offers coping skills and a calming mechanism for students, as well as a way to express themselves to the general public, which is all good."