SWOS students create garden

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Learning about irrigation, permaculture and ancient civilizations, Southwest Open School students toiled in the soil this spring to create a new school-based permaculture garden – built entirely of donated and re-purposed materials.

“Many school gardens in the area were developed with collaboration with other organizations such as Farm to School,” said Casey Simpson, Garden Committee member, in a release, “whereas the SWOS garden was built almost entirely by students, through donations – not through grants. So it’s a localized and student-led project, as opposed to having outside resources.”

Harnessing the SWOS tradition of expeditionary and hands-on learning, students are planting the “Three Sisters,” traditional crops cultivated by the Ancestral Puebloans thousands of years ago. Including corn, beans and squash, the Three Sisters are arranged to enrich the soil, provide shade and preserve moisture. The ancient cultivation techniques tie in to the SWOS Ancients class, which studies the Ancestral Puebloans.

The garden also incorporates more modern permaculture techniques and is the only school garden in the area to use of a swale, a soil embankment designed to capture moisture and runoff to create a self-sustaining ecosystem. Simpson said a permaculture approach requires less maintenance and is more sustainable.

“It’s a system of gardening that requires less work and works within the natural ecosystems within the region,” he said. “So you’re not out there trying to plant something that isn’t supposed to grow in the area. At the same time, you’re utilizing plant systems to enrich the soil that you’re growing in. Like the clover cover crops that add nitrogen to the soil and increase the production of your edible plants.”

The garden utilizes compost already being generated by the school. Simpson hopes vegetables grown in the garden will eventually be able to bolster school lunches, taken home by students and be donated to local food banks.

“Incorporating education about sustainable, regionally-appropriate gardening is what we’re trying to do here,” Simpson said. “We don’t want to plant a bunch of tomatoes that are going to die on the vine over the summer. We want to plant drought–resistant crops that have been historically successful growing in this region. And in doing so, teach students and/or all people with agricultural farming in their future, that there are ways to eat plentifully if you incorporate permaculture.”

Passionate about gardening, Simpson, Rita Stramel, Julie Birkle, and Tory Smith joined together early this year to form the SWOS Garden Committee. The plan was brought to life by this year’s SWOS Service Class, which incorporates service learning into projects to benefit the community.

Contributors to the project include Intermountain Farmers Association, Slavens True Value Hardware, Southwest Seed Inc., the City of Cortez Public Works Department, Mancos Seed Swap, Stone Gravel, Bob Curry of Permaculture Provision Project, Val Truelson, Colby Early, Patti Ledford and Amy Vasing.

Founded in 1986, Southwest Open School is a charter high school that uses an expeditionary and experiential approach to teaching and learning. Courses are designed to deeply investigate topics through projects, travel, community involvement and service.

For more information, contact Casey Simpson at: 970-232-6832.

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From July 2015.