Erin Jackson is a Service Member in Bozeman.

Early Wednesday morning I received a message from one of the teachers at Hyalite Elementary that said “Brace yourself. Gardens took a hit.” So I was prepared for, but not happy about the sight I saw when I got to the school. All of our tomatoes were snapped and bent over the pepper leaves were wrinkled and completely limp like they had completely given up on surviving. I didn’t really blame them though – the wind had been gusting at around 30 mph for the previous 24 hours and did not seem to be stopping anytime soon. I attempted to replace the plastic on my low tunnels that had blown off over night, but it felt more like preparing a parachute for an exciting ride. Needless to say, I opted to keep the plastic off since most of the damage had been done.

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I knew before we planted that the Montana climate does not bode well for weak, cold susceptible crops like peppers and tomatoes. However, I wanted to include kids in transplanting their starts before school got out for the summer, so we decided to take the chance. Although this wasn’t the year for it, this experience provided a teachable moment for kindergartners studying weather.

Fortunately, not all of the crops were completely decimated! The tiny sprouts of peas, carrots, beets, and radishes all withstood the storm. And of course, so had the spinach! Planted and harvested last fall, it had come back after the snowy, cold winter months – even heartier than before! So what was one more storm? Our spinach is still flourishing!

And the best part – kids LOVE it! Each day when I am out at recess, students plead, “Ms. Jackson, can I have some spinach?!” When I give them the go-ahead (I always do. Who can say no to kids eating greens?), they always enthusiastically exclaim “YES!” as if they just received the birthday present of their dreams. Who would’ve thought that harvesting and munching on spinach at recess could be so exciting for a six-year-old?

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Hyalite students harvesting at recess

My success with spinach at recess further demonstrates the importance of incorporating school gardens and food education into public school curriculum. Just in the last couple weeks, all 100 kindergartners harvested and devoured huge bowls of spinach that they planted in the fall. I heard one youngster telling his parents at pick-up the other day: “Dad, we made this!” as he pointed to the spinach growing in the garden. Another said to me, “You know, it just tastes better if you grow it yourself!” And another: “I LOVE this spinach! It tastes way better than any spinach you can buy in the grocery store!”

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Tasting spinach after harvest

For a school garden, especially one in a cold climate, spinach is a must. First of all, it is cold resistant, which allows it to not only thrive in Montana but grow during many months when the students are in school. This is not the case for many crops, which are ready to go in the ground right about when the kids leave for the summer. Spinach also has large enough seeds for young students to handle, requires little maintenance, is easy to harvest (kids can pick individual leaves), and it can be consumed raw – at recess! And best of all, spinach is packed with nutrients that help our kids grow up healthy!

So, if you are struggling to find a crop fit for school gardens in cold climates, plant spinach! It has been a huge success at Hyalite–just ask any student or come during recess to witness the mass devouring of spinach with your own eyes!

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A happy class of Hyalite kindergartners!