Editor's note: "Hall Passages" is a weekly education feature in the Missoulian. Each week on a rotating basis, K-12 education reporter Jamie Kelly visits a private or public school in the Missoula Valley to see what's new in the halls and walls of our learning institutions. This week, Kelly spent some time at Meadow Hill Middle School.
Most of the plots are empty now, gardeners having girded the land for winter with a fresh layer of manured topsoil and a protective layer of hay.
But the Meadow Hill Community Garden still has life left, three 15-by-15-foot squares of ground yielding carrots and kale and beets and other gifts of the earth.
That's where nine Meadow Hill students were on Monday, stabbing pitchforks in the soil to dig up their veggies as a cold wintry wind blew over the garden.
"Do you guys know what part of the plant you're eating when you eat a beet or a carrot?" asked Linda Sliter, a community garden specialist with Garden City Harvest, which manages the garden and its 30 plots.
"The root," came the answer in unison.
Sliter, who oversees three other community gardens in Missoula, has teamed up with Meadow Hill Flagship coordinator Becky Lupold, who organizes the after-school garden club.
Every year, students plant the seeds for the fall harvest, take a summer break, then return to reap what they have sown, learning about gardening and giving, plus cooking and eating in the cold months.
Other schools in Missoula have gardens, but none is shared by the community as is Meadow Hill's. The garden club "owns" three of the garden plots; all of the others are leased to the community. Much of the harvest ends up at the Missoula Food Bank.
But it also ends up in the tummies of middle-school students.
Because what could be better than homegrown and homemade salsa?
"Making salsa?" asked seventh-grader Aaron Marx. "That's easy. Real easy. Tomato paste, and some vegetables from the garden. That's it."
Sounds like a snap.
The garden club members spent the rest of Monday afternoon preparing the ingredients for their salsa: tomatoes, onions and even garlic - which is backwards from the rest of the harvest. Ask any sixth-grader, and she'll tell you.
"We plant it in the fall so we can pick it in the spring," said Sierra Perkins, wiping her forehead from a tough round of pitchfork-stabbing. "Most people don't grow garlic because they're hard to take care of."
The garden is a learning laboratory for soil science, social consciousness and the value of hard work.
"This is a neat opportunity for students to interact with the community and get behind a common cause," said Lupold, who is in her third year with Flagship.
And it's a neat opportunity too for them to learn that the food they eat requires the labor of many. Sixth-grader Mary Christensen found that out quickly.
"Taking care of plants is really important and really fun," she said. "And really hard to do."
Reach reporter Jamie Kelly at 523-5254 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.