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Leading the way

Garden guru honored as healthy living hero

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The first garden Jodie Visker planted was a complete and utter failure. She planted the wrong plants, didn’t tend to them correctly and despite the attractive design of her geometric beds, they didn’t support the growth of her plants.

It was all wrong.

Fast forward about 15 years and Visker is now a master gardener. And her passion for gardening and healthy living has spread beyond her backyard into her community.

Visker coordinates 10 gardens throughout Onalaska, including a community garden, a garden at her church, a neighborhood garden, a garden at a restaurant and several school gardens.

The impact she’s had on the hundreds of youth and families involved in the gardens, specifically at the schools, earned her the Healthy Living Individual Hero award from the La Crosse Healthy Living Collaboration. It’s the first time the award has been given.

“Everyone was just going bananas about how awesome she was,” said Jason Bertrand, wellness coordinator at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, who chaired the collaboration’s review committee. “It was difficult to choose just one (recipient), but she went above and beyond.”

The gardens at the Onalaska schools are one of the many ways Visker helps promote health and wellness.

They began at the elementary level in 2011 at Northern Hills, Eagle Bluff and Irving Pertzsch elementary schools in Onalaska in conjunction with the Farm to School Network, a program that sources local food for schools.

The gardens also were incorporated into the students’ curriculums as a hands-on approach to learning about science.

Students begin their involvement with the garden in early February when they plant lettuce under hot lights indoors, a plant that is easily transferable and can handle cooler temperate. They care for the plants as they learn about produce and nurture them until the spring.

When temperatures rise in mid-March, students transplant their plants into the school’s garden outside where they continue grow.

They plant additional vegetables in the gardens toward the end of spring, including zucchini, cherry tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers.

When the vegetables are ready to be harvested, the produce is picked straight from the garden and prepared for the students to eat. The garden produces enough vegetables to fill the school’s salad bar for about two weeks.

The schools also conduct Tasty Tuesdays on the second Tuesday of each month and Farm to Fork Fridays that allow students to samples new vegetables and fruits designated as the harvest of the month.

“Since Jodie started the garden it’s not uncommon for us to see students pick a tomato off the branch and eat it during recess,” said Curt Rees, principal of Northern Hills Elementary. “It’s very engaging for them to see foods being grown on the school grounds. I wish every kid could have this opportunity.”

Visker coordinates an asparagus garden at Onalaska Middle School and runs a garden project at Onalaska High School now, too. And the Ona Community Garden has grown significantly since its creation in 2010.

If it were up to her, Visker said she’d continue to plant more gardens throughout Onalaska. But she’s learning to pull back the reins.

“I think it’s magical,” she said. “You can put a tiny seed into the ground, and it’ll produce 10 pounds of cherry tomatoes. I love it.”

“I think it’s magical. You can put a tiny seed into the ground, and it’ll produce 10 pounds of cherry tomatoes. I love it.” Jodie Visker, winner of the first individual Healthy Living Hero Award from the La Crosse Healthy Living Collaboration

“I think it's magical. You can put a tiny seed into the ground, and it'll produce 10 pounds of cherry tomatoes. I love it.”

Jodie Visker, winner of the first individual Healthy Living Hero Award from the La Crosse Healthy Living Collaboration

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