BEMIDJI -- In a few short months, students at Voyageurs Expeditionary School hope to welcome crops of berries, herbs, native plants, vegetables and even honey, with the creation of a new Community Learning Garden.

The charter school plans to utilize space behind its building as a growing and learning area -- something the school has not had for at least a few years, and never on this scale.

At the helm of the new project is Voyageurs junior high math teacher Shannon Reyes who saw potential in the unused land.

On Friday, April 16, Leech Lake Nation elders led students in a traditional blessing ceremony for the garden space. A group of around 20 students participated, sharing a meal together afterward.

Cultural insights

Newsletter signup for email alerts

Mike Smith, Spiritual Advisor for the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe, spoke to the group of students after the ceremony, giving both life and cultural lessons -- encouraging students to stay active, help around the house and not watch too much television.

He explained the need to give something when asking for something, in this case, asking for use of the land as a successful garden, and providing fertilizer to the earth.

“Now today we're asking for permission to use these plots here for a garden,” he said. “We use tobacco and we use fish, because when we ask for something you’ve got to give something. With that fish, you're putting fertilizer into the garden in addition to what's already within that piece of land. But you always have to ask and give something and that's what I learned over the years, what our ancestors used.”

Birdie Lyons, Family Spirit program supervisor for Leech Lake, affirmed this, telling the group, “When you're doing gardening or doing anything with Mother Nature, you talk to the ground, and you let them know what you are doing,” she explained. “In the very beginning, we promised that we would help the animals because the animals didn't want us here when they created us. They wanted us gone. Some of the animals stood up and said that they would help us like the deer would feed us and clothe us, the bear would show us the medicines. And we said we would always remember them by having a feast and using our tobacco, to talk to all of them and to talk to the great creator.”

Realizing potential

When asked what the students will be growing in this space, Reyes said with a laugh, “everything.” In the beginning, the group plans to sow strawberries, raspberries, tomatoes, dill, sage, basil, chamomile and rhubarb.

The garden will be split into a few sections -- an Indigenous garden, a pollinator garden, and berry patch and beehive boxes.

Seedlings sit under grow lights in Shannon Reyes' classroom on Friday, April 16, 2021, in Voyageurs Expeditionary School. (Hannah Olson / Bemidji Pioneer)
Seedlings sit under grow lights in Shannon Reyes' classroom on Friday, April 16, 2021, in Voyageurs Expeditionary School. (Hannah Olson / Bemidji Pioneer)

“(Voyageurs) had a small (garden) a few years ago but it kind of fell away,” Reyes explained. “I was like, ‘I want a garden. And I'm going big.’”

The grassy space behind the school has been available for use since 2010 when Voyageurs moved into the Bemidji Avenue building. Prior to this, the school was located downtown.

The idea for a learning garden started small. Reyes had leftover seeds, so she and her students started seeds in classrooms, under grow lights. These have been used in math lessons with sixth, seventh and eighth-graders, she said.

Then, Reyes began applying for grants. The school received one from Garden-in-a-Box, and also acquired funding to build a greenhouse with high tunnels.

Some support is still needed for the project to fully come to fruition. Reyes spoke about how unexpected expenses continue to crop up -- like rakes and hoses.

Currently, a GoFundMe is active to help collect more donations to continue to fund the garden program.

The page cites how Reyes believes a garden is well-aligned with Voyageurs’ mission statement, to provide students with the necessary tools to lead meaningful and productive lives through hands-on learning, service to others and environmental stewardship.

“A community garden meets our school's mission statement of environmental stewardship,” Reyes said. “Student health and well-being is another reason our school needs a community garden.”

Voyageurs students eat together after a traditional Ojibwe blessing of the garden plots on Friday, April 16, 2021, behind Voyageurs Expeditionary School. (Hannah Olson / Bemidji Pioneer)
Voyageurs students eat together after a traditional Ojibwe blessing of the garden plots on Friday, April 16, 2021, behind Voyageurs Expeditionary School. (Hannah Olson / Bemidji Pioneer)

For students, by students

Reyes emphasized that the garden will be for students, by students, adding that a student even built the hive boxes the bees will inhabit.

“The kids are going to build it,” she said. “They're doing it all. The kids get service hours for working on the garden.”

She said she hopes to recruit students to work with her on a weekly basis throughout the summer to maintain the garden. She added that most of the students are excited to garden, some but have mixed feelings about beekeeping. Those students will receive the first pick of the produce. The rest will be distributed to the other students and their families.