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Published May 07, 2010, 07:00 AM

Making a garden grow

A garden filled with possibilities is growing at Cooper School. Initial work began Thursday as teachers, students and community members worked side-by-side to lift sod and build 10 garden boxes.

By: Maria Lockwood, Superior Telegram

A garden filled with possibilities is growing at Cooper School.

Initial work began Thursday as teachers, students and community members worked side-by-side to lift sod and build 10 garden boxes. As the project continues, the site behind Cooper will evolve into an outdoor classroom, complete with musical instruments, meteorology equipment, sites for chalk and painted artwork, fruit trees, a rain barrel and a three-step composting system.

This student-led initiative isn’t just for youth; the garden is for the entire community.

“Our goal is to make it so the garden’s something that’s sustainable through the year,” said Cooper Principal Brett Brodeen. “That we have community members here working spring, summer, fall” as well as student involvement in the growing and maintaining the plants.

The idea for the garden was planted last fall when students involved in the Cooper Community Leaders program – similar to a student council – and decided to start composting lunch scraps. Then, all they did was bag the compost and send it out. The kids wanted to do it themselves.

Teachers and staff discussed planting a garden in a small plot outside the school. Then they noticed the little-used space at the back of the building, and more ideas took root.

“As we started to talk about all the things we wanted, it just grew and grew,” Brodeen said.

The concept shot ahead after teachers applied for and received a $5,000 grant from Lowe’s and two $500 Murphy Oil grants. About a month ago, a team was assembled to turn a dream into reality.

“We just sent home some notes and people called,” said second grade teacher Dawn Theelke. “It was wonderful.”

Parents connected teachers to businesses and individuals who could help. They, in turn, drew on their web of connections to pull more businesses and individuals in.

“Advantage Landscaping is going to be a huge partner,” Brodeen said. “I think every single greenhouse is involved in some way.”

Add construction companies, master gardeners, businesses and even the city of Superior. The city’s Arbor Day celebration will take place June 3 at Cooper with the planting of fruit trees – two apple and one cherry.

Theelke has feelers out to Lake Superior College to build a gardening shed, the University of Wisconsin-Superior and Superior High School for volunteers. Organizers are still looking for partners to build birdhouses, bird feeders, picnic tables and stepping stones with students. They also need more plants.

“As people are splitting their home gardens right now, perennials would be helpful,” Brodeen said.

“We have a section for herbs, one section for bulbs ...” Theelke said.

“Anything that grows, basically,” Brodeen added.

Students in the leader’s program and throughout the school have caught green thumb fever.

“I think this age is perfect,” said Jen Peterson, whose son is in third grade at Cooper. “They’re really excited about something they can call their own out there.”

Teachers hope students will take ownership in the project, which will tie into science and health curriculum.

“We really want kids to understand and to protect nature,” Theelke said. “In order to protect it and love it and care about it, they have to understand it. And we have to teach them in order to help them understand it.

“ If we don’t teach them and give them those experiences they’re never going to understand it,” she added, “and you don’t protect something unless you care about it.”

The project promises hands-on learning at the ground level.

“In the past we’ve seen pictures in textbooks, but now we can walk out and see the seeds germinating or see what our fertilization does, what’s happening in our compost,” Brodeen said.

Community members will also be crucial in the garden’s success, Peterson said, to make sure it continues for years to come.

“Hopefully they’ll get excited too and take ownership over the summer,” she said.

The garden can provide beauty, a place to learn and a lasting lesson on sustainability.

Kids will learn “food doesn’t come from the grocery store,” said Jane Anklam, horticulture and agricultural educator for Douglas County UW-Extension. “It comes from right here.”

And it grew from the ideas of youth.

“The exciting thing about this is it really began with the kids,” Theelke said. “And it really is for and because of the kids that we’re doing this. I think that’s exciting.”

To help with the project, contact Brodeen at (715) 394-8793 or e-mail