Near the oldest high school and one of the most majestic churches in Boise sat a half-block parcel of fallow, weedy land. Situated at the corner of 12th and Fort streets, the space could easily have lived out the rest of its life as a parking lot. Fortunately, for a couple of years, it found a rebirth as a community garden.
But while a backyard garden takes a great deal of work to maintain, imagine the work involved in the upkeep of a community garden that takes up one-fourth of a city block. The space had again begun to resemble a weed farm--until Boise High School science teachers Erik Quissell and Ali Ward decided to get a little dirty.
In January, the Treasure Valley Food Coalition hosted a luncheon for a number of people involved in food production to kick off the Year of Idaho Food after a resolution to support Idaho food growers was passed by the Idaho Legislature. From that luncheon, the seeds of the Downtown Teaching Farm were sown.
Quissell was at the "education" table, and the stories and ideas flew like casserole dishes being passed around a Thanksgiving meal. Diana Ellis, who used to teach at North Junior High School, talked about her school's garden-to-plate program, and Quissell began to formulate an idea that Boise High School could turn the community garden into a learning experience.
Boise High science students needed practical application lessons (and credits) in science: soil, water, horticulture. And the budget for field trips had been eliminated.
"We have a number of kids at different academic levels," Quissell said. "And kids coming from out of the country. All of the students at high-school level will continue to need more science and math credits to graduate. On my mind was that some of those kids ... might not want to take AP classes. I got to thinking, 'What if we could get a garden space and teach kids at Boise High gardening, planting, real-life skills? [We could] use the garden to talk about botany, genetics, a whole variety of science concepts."
Quissell put his head together with fellow Boise High science teacher Ali Ward, and the two began to imagine what an incredible teaching tool a garden so close to the school could be. Not only would it benefit students, but Ward said she saw it as a way to benefit the community as a whole.
"We can use this as a model of how to rehabilitate a space," Ward said.
As an added benefit, they realized they could blend science and community-building lessons with the school's family and consumer science classes (what we used to call home economics). But before they could start digging up dirt and planting potatoes, they had to receive permission to use the property, which belongs to the First United Methodist Church Cathedral of the Rockies across the street.
Quissell, who happens to be a member of the church's congregation, said it was simple: He just asked the church if they could lease the space. The church said "yes," and now Boise High currently has a one-year lease for the property.
What grows on the farm will be used to supplement local food banks like the Idaho Foodbank and the church's pantry and will help with the church's weekly "friendship feast," which feeds the poor and underserved.
At the Downtown Teaching Farm, lime, kelly and olive green colors are sprouting from raised beds and mostly even rows of produce that run the length of the farm, which Ward affectionately but tiredly calls "humongous." Quissell guessed that there are at least a dozen different types of vegetables growing--pumpkins, potatoes, corn, chard, peppers and more--and there's even a "pizza garden" (a suggestion that came from Ward's daughter) that includes basil, wheat and tomatoes.
That humongousness coupled with a late start and an extra crop that is Ward and Quissell's bane--goatheads--means that the farm needs more than two science teachers and a few volunteer students to keep it alive and well this season. Ward said they got a generous water donation from United Water, but they are also going to need a few thousand gallons of elbow grease to make this season's farm a success, and volunteers are very welcome. They also need to get rid of the goatheads.
"If anyone out there has an organic way to remove weeds, we'd love to hear from them," Quissell said.