A $5,000 donation made by the Hilltopper Rotary Club to the Onalaska School District last month will support the expansion of the district’s garden program, which includes a new tower garden.

Garden Coordinator Jodie Visker said since its foundation in 2010, the Onalaska School Gardens program has given students the opportunity to get hands-on with their food.

Former Hilltoper Rotary Club President Angie Jones said the garden program is an important project that benefits the whole community.

“We feel the program is critically important to the community,” she said. “It reaches so many, so the dollars are really well spent.”

Visker said the goal of the garden program is to teach kids where their food comes from and to encourage them to explore careers in agriculture. Jones said many kids don’t learn about agriculture from their parents. The school garden program teaches students about the possibilities available to them.

“We feel like showing kids where their food comes from is a huge part of education,” she said.

To make this possible, every garden project is deeply integrated with the student’s science curriculum. Boxed gardens located outside the all three of the district’s elementary schools host vegetables planted by second and third-grade classes.

Visker said students raise everything from asparagus and zucchini to tomatoes, herbs and lettuce.

She said the Rotary Club’s donation will support a variety of garden projects including the district’s new aeroponic tower gardens, which were installed last year thanks to grants from the Wisconsin Medical Society Foundation and La Crosse Medical Society.

The towers offer students in the elementary and middle school the chance to explore alternative methods for growing fruits and vegetables year round.

These six-foot-tall towers function much like a vertical hydroponic table. Rather than receiving nutrients from the soil, the plant’s roots are bathed in fertilizer-enriched solution. Unlike a hydroponic table, the roots aren’t immersed in solution; instead, they are washed for 15 minutes every hour.

Visker said this helps the plans absorb more oxygen and grow faster. The towers are also portable and can be moved from classroom to classroom.

“Each classroom can volunteer to take care of them,“ she said adding that at the end of the six to eight-week growing period, the classroom hosts a salad party where students can taste what they’ve grown before the tower is moved to another classroom.

Visker said the Rotary club’s donation will help the district purchase materials like fertilizer and rock wool for the towers.

Unlike many programs which end when school lets out for summer and start back up in the fall, the garden program runs year long.

During the summer, parents are invited to volunteer with their children to water and weed the gardens. In exchange for their services, volunteers get to keep the all the veggies they grow.

Visker said she hopes the gardens will inspire parents to start a background gardens and teach their children about gardening.

Jones said the rotary club plans to continue hosting fundraisers to benefit the school gardens.

She said they have already scheduled their next fundraiser for March 22, 2018, at the Cedar Creek Golf Course.

“Jodie (Visker) does a great job,” she said. “We want to continue in that tradition and help her.”

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Tobias Mann is a reporter with the River Valley Media Group. He can be reached at tobias.mann@lee.net or at 608-791-8216.

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