With the sun finally showing its face again, local gardeners are pulling on their boots, dusting off their pruners and heading out into their yards.
But at Lake Quinault High School, tending vegetables and flowers isn’t just a seasonal activity. Horticulture students are in the greenhouse year-round, growing plants to sell to Quinault community members or the Grays Harbor Public Market in Hoquiam.
Under the guidance of their teacher, Erica Waggoner, eight students learn not only how to garden, but how to run the class as a successful business. The program is self-sustaining — plant sales generate enough money to buy new seeds and soil. The school district only has to cover the teachers’ salaries and maintaining the greenhouse.
“This has gone beyond flowers and making things look pretty,” Waggoner said. “We’re working on real life skills, like budgeting and responsibility.”
And to a certain extent, Waggoner treats her students like employees. They’re expected to fill out time cards and make up class time they miss.
“It’s just one way that I show them what it’s like to have a real job,” Waggoner said.
Quinault Principal Keith Samplawski said he’s noticed that the unconventional class structure helps students of all abilities.
“I think they really learn to value hard work,” Samplawski said. “Students who aren’t necessarily successful in other classes tend to do very well.”
The spring growing season
Over the past few weeks, students have been preparing for the Mother’s Day plant sale in May. Cherry tomato and fuchsia plants are already growing in individual pots, and the students began potting lobelia seedlings in mid-March.
Waggoner said the lobelia plants grow well in the cool, damp local climate. Students only planted 250 lobelia plants last year, and they flew off the shelves in about 20 minutes. This year, she upped the order to 500 plants.
“It’s been a little bit of trial and error, finding out what works and what doesn’t,” Waggoner said.
She and her students grow their plants from both seeds and seedlings. They order the seedlings through companies based in Tenino and Lake Tapps. The plants are shipped through FedEx, and arrive stacked in large boxes. The students then carry the boxes to the greenhouse and get to work.
Junior Mikayla Sansom and senior Hannah Allen worked together to transfer the lobelia seedlings into 4-inch pots. Sansom filled the pots with soil and Allen planted the seedlings. The lobelia seedlings are smaller than many of the plants they work with, so transferring them was tricky.
“It can be hard to get them out of the container because they’re so small,” Allen said.
She then dipped the seedlings in a solution of fertilizer and water — which the students call “root juice” — and placed the plants into their individual pots.
The students will spend the next few weeks tending and trimming the plants to get them sale-ready. Some of the lobelia will be transferred into hanging baskets, and the rest will remain in the disposable pots so gardeners can plant them in their own gardens.
“It’s cool to see community members come in and buy stuff that we grew,” Allen said.
Gardening through trial and error
Waggoner began teaching the horticulture class last school year after moving to Quinault to teach biology. She teaches a variety of other classes, including physical education, health and photography.
Before taking over the program, Waggoner didn’t have much experience with growing. Her parents are gardeners and she has a biology background, so she said she understands the basics. But to a large extent, she’s learning along with her students.
“It’s about going in with no fear, sink or swim,” Waggoner said.
Often, the mistakes are the result of plants growing better than expected. For example, when the class grew lettuce over the winter. Waggoner said she didn’t expect a winter crop to do so well, and the greenhouse was packed with leafy, green plants.
She and her students contacted the Grays Harbor Public Market and began selling the lettuce every two weeks.
The class had a similar situation last year with tomato plants.
“We started growing lettuce, and the kids asked if they could grow tomatoes,” Waggoner said. “So I said sure. We’re experimenting, so if they want to grow something I say go ahead.”
She didn’t expect all of the seeds to take, but they did and the class ended up with hundreds of tomato plants.
Community members and other teachers have stepped up to provide assistance. Substitute teacher Nancy Erben has served as the class gardening pro, Waggoner said. She volunteers to help students and teaches them about plants that thrive in the Quinault area.
“For me, it’s been a lot of fun to come and teach the kids,” Erben said. “It’s a great program, and I’m happy to be a part of it.”
Another teacher serves as an on-call plant specialist. Last year, students forgot to label some flowers for the Mother’s Day sale, and the teacher helped to identify the mystery plants.
“It really takes a community to support the program,” Waggoner said. “And we’re lucky to have a lot of help.”
And this year, Waggoner and her class are learning from that mistake. Sansom and Allen spent about three hours making plant tags for the lobelia.
“It took us a really long time, and we’re going to have to do more,” Sansom said.
Teaching sustainability and community
The horticulture class also focuses on sustainability and meeting the needs of the community. Waggoner said she and her students try to listen to suggestions and provide plants their neighbors want. Students are responsible for talking to community members and learning their needs.
Allen said the lettuce and other vegetables have become popular because of Quinault’s remote location. Students sell planters full of veggies for making salads.
“We’re a long way away from town, and people don’t have time to drive in every week,” Allen said. “So this is a good way for them to have fresh vegetables.”
As part of the sustainable program, students even mix their own potting soil from a variety of ingredients. Junior Julio Silva said it’s a messy job, but he still enjoys it.
“It can be a lot of work, but it’s fun.” Silva said.
The soil is stored in large Rubbermaid containers until planting time.
District officials have plans to grow the program even further. Waggoner said she hopes to develop a summer program and a community garden. Quinault Superintendent Richard DuBois said the district is also considering some upgrades to the greenhouse, including a more permanent roof.
“This is a critical part of the community, and we’re going to do what we can to keep it around,” DuBois said.