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Students work the garden at Western Avenue School. 
(Photo provided)

Students returning to Western Avenue School this week will be faced with an important question that has little to do with reading, writing or arithmetic.

What would grow best in a vacant planting bed at the school garden?

Western parents Aimee Matthys and Jen Ermshler, who help supervise the school’s Green Team activities, including the student garden, last week said it’s not too late to plant late summer crops. They speculated that students still have time to grow lettuce and Swiss chard at the Flossmoor school.

Other vegetables including squash and pumpkins are already growing at the Western garden. Matthys, Ermshler and fellow Green Team parent volunteer Barb Haggerty have been keeping an eye on the garden throughout the summer and helping students harvest seasonal crops.

The Western garden, now in its fifth year, provides a valuable learning experience for students in the K-5 building.

Students learn to plant seeds in the spring, to nurture young plants, harvest them when they are grown and take part in less glamorous jobs, like cleaning out the growing beds.

“It’s all a process,” Matthys says. “Most of the kids don’t know that carrots grow underground.”

Matthys and Ermshler say they had no experience working in a garden before taking on their Green Team duties.

“We’re learning new things all the time,” Ermshler said. “This has been a learning curve for us, too.” 

They have learned, for example, that the garden can support multiple plantings during the year. Earlier this summer, students helped harvest 30 bags of lettuce, which were donated to the Respond Now food pantry in Chicago Heights.

Last year, students grew nearly 40 pumpkins. Western students took some of them home as part of Western’s Great Pumpkin Giveaway.

Over the years, students have also grown radishes, cucumbers, green peppers, heirloom tomatoes, cherry tomatoes, carrots, beets, sunflowers, perennial flowers and milkweed, which attracts Monarch butterflies.

Green Team activities go on throughout the year, they say. About 50 Western fourth and fifth graders are currently signed up for the program. Matthys, Ermshler and Haggerty meet with team members at lunchtime once a month and discuss ways they can help the environment both inside and outside school. Students agree to carry out green jobs and look for ways to promote sustainable practices at Western.

Last year, students started a campaign to recycle cardboard containers from the lunchroom. Students also helped promote the “Start a Bag Habit” initiative started by Flossmoor’s Green Committee.

“Even at a young age, they know there are things they can do to help the environment,” Matthys said.

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