ROCK ISLAND — School may be out, but some Rock Island-Milan students are still hard at work. This time, instead of the classroom, they are rolling up their sleeves and getting their hands dirty in the high school’s garden.
Rock Island High School science teacher Andy Campbell and half a dozen other district students were busy Thursday morning shoveling dirt into wheelbarrows and getting plants into the ground that originally started out in the school’s greenhouse back in February.
“They are able to see the seeds in the little tiny planter they planted,” Campbell said. “There are 288 individual seeds in the trays, and they end up with what’s here and what’s going in the garden.”
Students on Thursday were planting tomatoes, peppers, and cucumbers. Later, they will also plant zucchini, beans, lettuce greens, kale, Swiss chard and broccoli.
Neiko Summers, vice president of the nonprofit Sprouting Minds, said this is the second year for the high school’s “back to Eden-style garden.” That means the plot, located on the north end of Rock Island High School near the high school’s band room, is no-till with minimal soil disturbance. Summers said research has shown too much tilling is not beneficial and less disturbance means soil microbes and fungi are allowed to do their thing to keep the garden healthy.
The high school’s garden has narrow paths and rows of dirt. Summers said after the plants are in the ground, students will put two- to three-inches of straw down to keep weeds down, and they’ll keep layering the straw over time.
Summers said students are using the Florida Weave method for planting tomatoes, which he said is aimed at getting the most food out of the space.
Food harvested from the garden goes to the Rocky Resource room, which assists students and families in need. Last year’s garden produced more than 300 pounds of food.
Campbell said Summer’s nonprofit Sprouting Minds provided the seeds and compost for the garden and the students took over from there. Campbell said he has between 10 to 15 students who help with the garden and he estimated all together they’ll work more than 200 hours.
“The students are the driving force behind all of this,” Campbell said.
Among those working Thursday were senior Aminia Mashimango and several other students who got to work shoveling a large pile of compost at about 7:30 a.m.
“We’re out here because we’re part of the student ambassadors. It’s one of the things we help out with. This is the first year I’ve worked in the garden and as part of the ambassadors. I don’t even like dirt, but here I am,” Mashimango said. “It’s a way for us to be ambassadors of the school. And if we don’t do it, who will?”
Junior Donovan Garro said the garden is just one of the many projects members of the student ambassadors give their time to.
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“We help the community as much as possible, and the school,” he said.
Also joining in on the fun Thursday were Campbell’s daughters, Addi, a Rocky freshman, and Ashton, a Eugene Field fifth grader.
Ashton said she enjoys helping her dad’s students, getting the opportunity to plant and talk with them. But there are parts of gardening she’s less fond about.
“I’m trying not to be afraid of bugs when we’re digging in the dirt,” she said.
Summers said Sprouting Minds, the nonprofit he formed with his father, Chad Summers, is geared toward getting even more students involved in gardens throughout the Quad-Cities. He said two years ago the organization helped Our Lady of Grace Catholic Academy, in East Moline, start an urban farm. He helped them start a 40-foot by 25-foot plot and grow more than 2,300 pounds of food that went to St. Mary’s food pantry.
Summers said by this fall or next spring Sprouting Minds will be helping students grow vegetables in the three-acre terrace garden at Hauberg Civic Center in Rock Island. He said trees are being cleared now at the site to restore the historic garden.
Once established, over 150 kids from the nearby Rock Island Center for Math and Science will be at the site to participate in sustainable gardening. All food produced in the garden will return to the school and will be served up in the cafeteria.
Another garden was set up just days ago at Moline High School on the southeast corner of the property near the baseball diamonds.
No matter the location, Summers said the gardens are established in a style he calls “regenerative organic,” with no spraying and no chemicals. Instead, the gardens get worm castings and ground up volcanic rock.
Summers said he began learning about gardening with his dad about 13 years ago in their backyard. Today, in addition to Sprouting Minds, the pair co-own Healthy Harvest Urban Farms. Summers said they’ve researched and read their way to successful gardening methods.
“We have no schooling in this at all, but we know how to grow food."