Garden grows into accolades for founder

Christianson gets state environmental award for work put into Grow With Us Garden
Lee Pulaski
City Editor

The dream of having a school garden was something that Noreen Christianson had ever since she started with the Bonduel School District 25 years ago, and that dream finally became a reality in 2019.

Her goal was simply to teach students about where their food comes from, she said. That effort, however, has had far-reaching effects as Christianson was the recipient of the 2022 Earthguard Award from the Wisconsin Association for Environmental Education.

“There was a teacher that came in and broke the news to me, and I started crying,” Christianson said. “I was just humbled. I had no idea that I was nominated.”

Several teachers pushed for Christianson to get the award, noting that her work has included thousands of volunteer hours — including several summers teaching students about various fruits, vegetables and other growable crops. However, Christianson is the first one to say that others deserve much of the credit, including the students who regularly help with the garden, the administration that gave the project its blessing and the staff members who helped her to form a garden committee to plan what should go into it.

“I wanted this garden for our students for a long time,” Christianson said. “I proceeded to do a lot of grant writing, and I went to several local meetings of organizations and told them about our vision.”

The garden project seems like a perfect extension for what Christianson does, which is working as a cook for the district’s schools. Christianson also has a degree in horticulture, and it’s only the lack of a teaching license that keeps her from educating young minds on her own full time.

Between the grants and the donations, more than $12,000 has been raised for the Grow With Us Garden, located behind Bonduel Elementary School.

“This does not cost the district anything,” Christianson said. “This is just solely with donations, volunteer time and grant money. We will be self-sufficient forever.”

Even though much of the education is going toward the younger students, the upperclassmen have made their mark on Grow With Us, as well, according to Christianson. The middle school students created metal flowers to decorate the garden through their welding class, while high school students in the technical education department built a garden shed, eight raised beds that are 32 square feet in size, picnic tables for the younger kids to sit on when they do their journaling and other projects.

High school agriculture students have also helped out with composting and fertilizing the garden beds, Christianson said. They also helped to set up the fencing so that deer and other animals could not easily get in and gobble all the students’ hard work.

“Everybody at the schools feels like they’re part of this project,” Christianson said.

With the garden came a summer school program where students get to learn about growing things. Christianson said she has an average of 50 students taking classes.

“The summer school class is just phenomenal,” she said. “The kids have so much fun, and we do a lot of hands-on experiments, and we did some field trips and even a walking trip to three of the community members and get them aware that we have this green and growing space, too.”

Christianson said she expected some positive response when she kicked off the garden project, but even she is overwhelmed at how much the students and staff have embraced it. She works in the kitchen during the day, and at 2 p.m. steps away to speak with students about gardening until school lets out an hour later. “The response has just been amazing,” Christianson said. “There was a group of second graders that went out with me, and we dug potatoes. They said, ‘This is better than a treasure hunt.’”

Teachers also utilize the garden when teaching math and science, according to Christianson, bringing real-life relevance to the lessons they teach.

“There’s a lot of math that goes into planning our garden,” she said.

Students who are caught up on school work get to come out and help tend to the garden. Christianson described it as a “reward” for being good students.

“They have a sense of teamwork, perseverance. They have to have patience, and they’re discovering that, for them to plant that carrot seed and get a carrot in the fall, that’s a long span of time,” Christianson said. “They’re learning where their food comes from. They’re learning how to be a little more appreciative of their food.”

That appreciation extends to when they come into the cafeteria for breakfast or lunch. Much of the produce harvested helps to offset the district’s food costs as Christianson incorporates it into meals.

“We’ll put up a sign that says: ‘This is from your garden, and this is what you’ve grown,’” she said. “They are just asking, when can we come out again? A lot of the kids, they eat right out of the garden.”