On Wednesday, June 11, 2008, record-high floodwaters covered all but one road in and out of La Porte City. By the time the water receded, millions of dollars of property damage had been inflicted on the area. On West Main Street, floodwaters rendered four homes uninhabitable, their owners opting to move elsewhere and have their homes demolished after accepting a federal buyout that would prohibit future placement of any buildings on those lots. Out of this devastation, though, came an idea that would help fill the void left by the missing homes and occupy a portion of the green space in need of a project: a community garden.
Union High School Vocational Agriculture instructor and La Porte – Dysart FFA Chapter advisor, Louis Beck, began to conceive the plan for a community garden after attending a breakout session on the topic at an Iowa Ag Teachers Conference in 2010. As part of the project, his students took on the task of developing a marketing plan, which included scouting the area for potential garden sites. They soon realized the empty lots on West Main Street were ideal for the concept. Located close to the high school, the properties were also free of large shade trees that could hamper the growth of the fruits and vegetables planted there. The project got off the ground in 2012, after a formal 28E agreement specifying how the school and the City of La Porte City would collaborate on the project, was agreed upon.
As plans for the Outdoor Horticulture Lab began to develop, it was determined that a portion of the garden would be used for apple trees. The remaining space would be dedicated to a series of raised beds that would be home to a crop of table grapes and other seasonally rotated fruits and vegetables. The raised beds concept was important one, as a higher grade of soil than what was present where houses once stood was needed to stimulate plant growth.
Work on the lab began in earnest in 2013. Thanks to strong local support, the La Porte-Dysart FFA Chapter received seed money from a variety of sources, including a grant from the Iowa Food & Family Project and a donation from the East Central Iowa Cooperative. In June of that year, several apple trees were planted. Construction of the raised beds soon followed.
From the beginning, students in Beck’s high school agriculture classes were actively involved in making the La Porte City community garden a reality. Whether it was digging post holes, assembling railroad ties to construct raised beds or planting and harvesting the crops grown on West Main Street, the project has given students valuable hands-on experience in all phases of fresh food production.
“A lot of kids don’t have gardens at home anymore. For a lot of them, this is the first time they’ve done this,” Beck explained.
Those who might think teenagers are not interested in taking on the responsibilities of managing a garden would be surprised to see the work being done along Main Street. For senior Cole Moody, the lessons learned by he and his fellow students extend well beyond basic gardening skills.
“[It’s about] the principles of teamwork, working with other students, communication and working for the betterment of your school and community,” he noted.
Certainly leaving the classroom environment to spend time outdoors has its perks. But what about the physical labor involved, weeding the garden, as well as other potentially undesirable chores? Beck noted that student response and participation has been excellent.
“They’re not shy to try it. What I hope happens is that they’ll be brave enough to apply what they’ve learned in their own gardens and yards someday,” he said.
It’s a a sentiment echoed by Moody.
“Any day in an Ag class is a good day for me!” he exclaimed.
“I think [students] enjoy more hands-on learning than classroom-based. They’re able to connect with it because it relates better. We’ve had good participation and we’ve been able to get everything accomplished,” he added.
In 2014, the first year of the horticulture lab focused on proper care of the young apple trees and growing a crop of tomatoes in the raised beds. Because the produce raised by students primarily benefits the school’s food service program, Beck explained that the tomatoes were deliberately planted later than normal in the growing season because they didn’t want the harvest season to precede the start of school in August.
“Harvest time is done during class time,” Beck stated.
“Last year we had more tomatoes than the school could use, so we donated the excess to the food bank.”
Last Spring, students planted watermelons in the raised beds as part of a planned crop rotation. When it came time to harvest them, they got a valuable lesson on how to tell when a watermelon is ready to be picked. While tapping and listening for a hollow sound is the typical practice, Moody shared some other tips he and his fellow students learned, which included the presence of a white spot on the melon where it makes contact on the ground and what to look for when closely examining the watermelon’s stem.
The students’ work did not stop with just harvesting the melons, however. Once collected and hauled to the high school, students cleaned and weighed them before turning them over to the high school kitchen staff. It was then that the fruits of their labor were literally on display and available for consumption at the cafeteria’s salad bar. And yes, Moody confirmed, the watermelon tasted as good as it looked.
As the Outdoor Horticulture Lab continues to grow, Beck hopes to branch out and expand the learning experiences it can offer beyond the high school curriculum. After a few Jonathan apples were harvested this year, a year sooner than expected, he looks forward to when the other varieties of apples planted, golden delicious, honeycrisp and liberty among them, are also be ready for consumption.
“What we hope to do when we get more established with apples every year, is to extend the program through the [FFA Historical and Ag ] Museum to offer continuing education classes, like how to grow fruits and vegetables, or maybe a class for adults who want to know how to prune their trees or can applesauce,” he said.
For students like Cole Moody, the lessons learned at the outdoor lab are both unique and comprehensive.
“[It’s learning about the] full circle, from the beginning stages to having the food on your table,” he said.
“I think a lot of students are excited to learn about things that really aren’t offered in other classes.”