VAN BUREN TWP. — Van Buren Elementary School students have been getting their hands dirty this school year.

With the help of a monetary donation and volunteers working weekends, the VBE Garden Project is taking root.

Three different gardens are growing behind the school — at least one of them even through the winter.

“It’s been really fun,” Principal Gavin Steele said, walking through them.

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Surrounded by fencing and a gate is the school’s harvest garden. Students have planted cold-weather crops there, like lettuce and turnips.

Each student in every grade will learn how to sow and germinate a seed, then take care of that plant through maturity, according to the October VBE School Gardens newsletter.

In the memorial garden, a wooden pergola — built by volunteers on a Saturday work day — will serve as the entrance. The garden is revitalizing an existing student memorial that had fallen into disrepair over time.

The new memorial will be updated to include other VBE students who have passed away since 1992 when the last memorial was built. It will feature cedar garden benches and oak mulched paths.

Directly behind the school, near the science room door, will be the outdoor education lab which will include a sensory garden and a pollinator garden. Here, students will see diverse plant species and learn basic plant sciences.

“This will all be a sensory garden, so different types of flowers with different textures, different smells, different colors. Kids can come out and interact with them in different age levels,” Steele said.

There are also plans to build a bean teepee. “Then we’ll plant beans that want to vine all the way around the bottom. They will vine to the top and what it does is it creates this teepee, but all of your sides are beans,” Steele said.

Using vine plants, like raspberries or blueberries, on the harvest garden fence is also a possibility, he said.

The outdoor education lab will also have raised garden boxes with a space in the middle for people to do lectures for students or the community. It will seat about 45 people.

“They can sit around, talk to a gardener and literally put their hands in the dirt,” said Brandon Harris, a volunteer and Purdue Master Gardener.

How it started

Harris helped to get the project started at Van Buren after hearing from parent Barbara Jacobus about money that had been donated to start a garden project in Brown County. Jacobus is a biology professor at Indiana University-Purdue University Columbus. Her husband, Luke, is also a biology professor.

Harris said there are plans to start offering free gardening classes to the community using the space at Van Buren.

The donated money came from Autumn Fox, who won Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis’ JagStart competition last spring. Fox is a Seymour High School graduate but has ties to Brown County.

JagStart is designed to jump-start students’ ideas that provide solutions to social and economic issues. Fox had pitched an “Ecopatch” idea to judges. She was awarded $2,500, which she donated to Brown County Schools for the VBE Garden Project.

Her project included creating a sensory garden that can be utilized by people with disabilities and young students.

“I got together with a couple of other master gardeners and said, ‘Is this something we can take on for Brown County?’ A lot of people threw their hands up and said, ‘Heck yeah,’” Harris said.

Harris said the goal is to get as many community members and kids involved, then to get outdoor education labs in all three elementary schools.

“What we’re really trying to do here is to make something where there’s Brown County Master Gardeners that are helping with the school and that ultimately brings in community gardens,” Harris said.

“There’s not a lot of space around to do gardening in Brown County, but yet you have these three schools who have tons of property.”

Harris served with the U.S. Marine Corps for 10 years in food service as a combat cook from 1996 to 2005 before he had to retire due to an injury. He also worked r{span}ecruiting duty as well as Marine Corps martial arts program duty.

“When I was in Marine Corps I found out most of the world doesn’t know how to grow food anymore,” he said.

Harris grew up gardening in southern Illinois. After moving to Brown County nine years ago, he realized the soil here was different. He decided to take the the Master Gardeners class through the Purdue Extension office.

“What I learned in that class was very valuable. The other things I learned is a lot of people in Brown County, even though we live here, a lot of people don’t know how to garden in Brown County,” he said.

Thinking green

Van Buren Elementary’s Garden Club meets every Thursday after school. At that meeting they decide whether or not to work the upcoming weekend on the garden project, Steele said.

“We just say, ‘Hey, we’re going to work this Saturda,y’ and we get parents to show up,” Steele said.

It’s encouraging involvement from other members of the community, too.

“Since we’ve had this, we’ve had other farmers say, ‘Would you want me to come in and talk to the classes about how I farm?’” he said.

Southern Brown Volunteer Fire Department also helped one weekend by setting posts for the fence around the harvest garden.

“It’s just been really cool just to see everybody pitch in and help out, from teachers to parents to spouses of teachers, everybody who has materials. It’s been a lot of fun,” Steele said.

Students are loving the garden project, he said.

“As they were coming out, they could see the deer prints in the garden. They were starting to get really nervous,” Steele said.

“We went ahead and moved quick, got the fence up. We still have a little bit of work to do on the gates, just to get something up a little higher to make sure that the deer stay out. I think we have a couple of ideas for that.”

The Purdue Master Gardeners class also has members involved with the program on a rotating schedule, earning volunteer hours. Members are required to get 35 hours of community service and education.

“In Brown County, we don’t have a lot of opportunities. What you find is a lot of gardeners are going to go to the state fair, go to other counties, and that’s not helping our counties, so this is a real big win-win,” Harris said.

Students plan to do their main harvest around the end of the school year. Harris said it’s possible some of the food could go to local food banks.

The project is also encouraging students to think more “green,” he said.

“The kids have asked what foods at lunch we can start composting. So, the conversation has been started there. I envision us bringing some food out every once in a while, some scraps, bring some buckets out and throw it on our pile to keep it going,” he said.

Harris said kids need to learn how to grow food.

“We need to know how to grow our food, or we’re going to be in a real tough spot in another decade or so,” he said.

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Suzannah Couch grew up in Brown County, reading the Brown County Democrat. A 2013 Franklin College graduate, she covers business, cops/courts, education and arts/entertainment.