Garden helpers needed

By Pam Reinig, Register Editor

School gardens are sprouting up all over the U.S. and Elkader is no exception. For the third straight season, a spacious plot of land adjacent to the school will be tilled, planted, watered, weeded and harvested by a troupe of volunteer gardeners. Produce will be available to those who help with the project and, when the new academic year begins in August, it will be incorporated into the school lunch program.

The school garden project is still looking for volunteers. Interested persons can participate in two ways. There’s a weekly garden club that includes outdoor morning yoga followed by a hands-on activity or a lesson on gardening-related topics ranging from plant markers to weed identification to herb taste tests. There’s also an adopt-the-garden option for people willing to supplement the club’s efforts with a week-long commitment to watering and weeding the plot.

Central counselor Jane Metcalf, Iowa State University Extension Program Coordinator Shannon Durbin and AmeriCorps volunteer Kayla Koether head up the effort.

Koether has been working with Clayton County Schools as part of the Northeast Iowa Food and Fitness Initiative. The daughter of Greg and Kathy Koether, McGregor, she is a 2008 graduate of MFL Mar-Mac High School and a 2012 graduate of Grinnell College.

“I grew up on a farm and, I suppose, that’s why I’m so interested in locally grown food and what that means not just for our health but also for the vitality of our rural communities,” she said. She parlayed her long-held interest into a highly tailored college curriculum that enabled her to graduate with a degree in international agriculture and rural development.

Koether, who will lead the morning yoga sessions, has provided input into the types of produce that will be planted in the school garden. She received advice from David Cavagnaro, founder of the non-profit Pepperfield Project in Decorah. He donated seeds selecting those that would grow well with minimal maintenance. He also drew upon his 30-plus years of gardening experience to chose kid-friendly produce.

“Kids love fresh fruits and vegetables,” said Koether. “When they’re available in the lunchroom, they go like crazy.”

She added that the food service staff could use almost anything from the garden, as long as they feel they can clean and process it thoroughly.

Throughout the school year, Koether visits classrooms to talk about food and fitness concepts. She often includes taste tests as part of her presentation. She likes introducing kids to new foods and watching their reactions as they realize they do like unfamiliar produce. 

“We’ll have eggplant next year and I’m pretty excited about sharing that with the kids,” she said. “I think they’ll like it’s pretty color, which might be the way we get them to taste it.”

Anyone interested in being part of the Central School Garden Project as a garden club member or as part of the adopt-a-garden club can contact Metcalf (, Durbin ( or Koether (

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