The smell of fresh mint. The look of a tomato on the vine. The feel of digging in the dirt. The sight of butterflies and birds. The touch of a worm.
In the touchy-feely garden at Willow School in Homewood the kindergarten, first and second graders experience it all. And when the garden is officially put to bed for the winter, their school-grown vegetables will be turned into a delicious soup that they will serve their parents in mid-November. The stock will include the garden’s peppers, potatoes, cauliflower, tomatoes, squash, Brussels sprouts, onion and plenty of herbs for seasonings.
Regina Zohfeld, who was a staff member at the Homewood primary school for 15 years, helped convert the vacant courtyard at Willow School into a flourishing garden that helps the youngest students in District 153 understand the basics of nature.
The 16 Willow School Garden Club members meet once a week for eight weeks. As first graders they prepared the garden and planted the seeds. Over the summer Zohfeld and friends work at maintaining the garden so when the students return in the fall as second graders they see the end results and help pick the vegetables.
Zohfeld learned to garden from her grandfather, but today many children don’t have that advantage, so Zohfeld and a teacher decided it would be a great idea to have a place for children to learn to plant. In 2007, Zohfeld took over a courtyard boxed into the Willow building. She worked at clearing the weeds and grass and started a flower garden.
It added lots of color, but it wasn’t what Zohfeld had in mind. In short order, she converted it to a vegetable garden to help children understand that what they see in the produce department at the store doesn’t just magically appear. It takes time, effort and lots of toil to get a garden growing.
Zohfeld has been able to expand the garden with funding from the Homewood Tree Committee, the Village of Homewood, Foundation 153, Walmart, Whole Foods and the Audubon Society.
In addition to the vegetables, the garden has a bird bath, and Zohfeld added milkweed and prairie plants for a butterfly garden giving the children the chance to see caterpillars turn to beautiful butterflies.
Her latest inspiration was creating a “pizza garden.” The space is being divided up for peppers, onions and herbs and will have pig and a cow statutory standing watch, “so that the children know the cheese comes from the cow and the pepperoni and the sausage come from the pig,” she explained. Second grader Asa Lifschultz says he’s looking forward to that.
Zohfeld retired in 2014 and had time to become a University of Illinois Extension master gardener. She has fellow master gardeners assisting her with the Garden Club activities. She was flattered that the Garden Club and the school dedicated the garden to her, but says the garden was just her idea with lots of volunteers helping over the years.
Second grader Alice Nguyen says she’s in the Garden Club because she gardens with her grandmother and helped pick tomatoes and grapes this summer. Other students have inspired their parents to plant a small garden.
“That’s really a wonderful thing,” Zohfeld says.
Photos by Marilyn Thomas/HF Chronicle.