West Side Greenhouse Ready to Blossom

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A seed planted three years ago on the West Side of St. Paul will finally blossom this spring, as an urban greenhouse on the grounds of Cherokee Heights Elementary School is put into operation. A joint effort of Youth Farm and Market Project and St. Paul Public Schools – with assistance from the Minnesota Air National Guard Civil Engineers and a host of community members, local companies and foundations – the climate-controlled greenhouse will provide additional programming space for Youth Farm’s gardening and youth leadership activities, act as a resource for Cherokee Height’s teachers, and provide occasional programming opportunities for other community organizations in the neighborhood.

The greenhouse was the brainchild of Gunnar Liden, Executive Director of Youth Farm and Market Project, a nonprofit that provides programming in urban agriculture, youth leadership development and nutrition education in three Twin Cities neighborhoods, including St. Paul’s West Side. Youth Farm had been operating a summer garden on the Cherokee Heights school grounds for several years when Liden first contemplated the possibility of building a greenhouse at the site. “We had wanted to do something like this for awhile,” explains Liden. With much of their programming dictated by Minnesota’s relatively short growing season, Youth Farm staff recognized that a greenhouse could extend programming options by lengthening their growing season. In addition, siting the greenhouse on school grounds could expand and deepen the relationship between Youth Farm and the school, which in turn could enhance the overall climate of support for the neighborhood’s kids.

Planning for the greenhouse began three years ago, and construction – to the surprise of everyone involved – has taken over two years. While the initial work on the building’s foundation (which sits on an abandoned wading pool) and basic structure went smoothly, work bogged down when the building was ready for installation of the complex mechanical systems that allow the greenhouse to operate year-round. Cherokee Heights Intern Assistant Principal Mark Legvold contacted the Minnesota Air National Guard Civil Engineers, which often use community service projects as training tools for their members. Guard volunteers were able to finish gas and electrical lines, address code issues and troubleshoot mechanical problems at the project.

With construction finally complete, the greenhouse stands as an interesting example of collaboration between school and community. The school district provided staff time and expertise toward the project, owns the site, and pays the utility bills. In turn, Youth Farm raised the funds for the project, owns the building, and will be responsible for maintenance and upkeep. Each entity is ensured time in the greenhouse to pursue their own programming and curricula. But Youth Farm intends to work closely on an ongoing basis with the school, dovetailing their particular expertise with the curricular needs of the classes. And with other community groups expressing interest in getting time in the greenhouse, Youth Farm’s greatest challenge down the road may be finding a way for everyone in the community who wants to try greenhouse gardening to get the opportunity.

Although no programming was possible over the winter due to ongoing issues with the heating system, the greenhouse was celebrated in a grand opening this past fall, and Youth Farm is ready to gear up its spring programming shortly. Step one: a pilot project with a few teachers at the school to explore how to best utilize the greenhouse’s potential.

Cherokee Heights Principal Maureen Seibert is looking forward to this new collaboration. “Because our kids live in a large urban school district, we have access to partners that then create a world of opportunities for all of our students.” And Youth Farm staff are equally enthused. “This will be a big turning point for our organization,” says Liden. “ We’re going to expand what we’re able to do as an organization and provide a new resource for the school and its students – we’re excited.”

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