'To Everything There Is A Season….'
It all started with some worn-down tennis courts and the desire to help kids understand the word of Christ.
Father Alex Zenthoefer, pastor of Evansville’s Annunciation Parish, saw the empty space at the Holy Spirit school campus and imagined the addition of some raised beds for gardening. Thanks to a $1,500 classroom-enrichment grant through the Rotary Club and the generosity of the Evansville community, the project took bloom.
“This is a place where kids can make mistakes and learn from them,“ Father Zenthoefer said. The garden provides not only a chance for citified students to experience hands-on agriculture but also “is helping kids to understand agricultural images of the Kingdom of God that Jesus uses in his parables.”
The end result is a garden that allows for students to learn in a different way. Raised beds of vegetables and flowers are intermixed with natural seating areas and religious statues, which provide a refuge for students of all ages.
Fourth-grade teacher Lynn Miller has been inspired by the garden, introducing her students to the wonders of nature. She and the other teachers at Holy Spirit School use the area as a study area for subjects like science and religion.
“We were encouraged to study scripture; Father Alex gave us several bible verses that had to do with agriculture,” Miller said. “The students paired up and reflected on the bible verse. The depth to which these kids understood the bible verses, it was touching to me.”
Miller read an example to the current fifth-graders, who were her forrth-graders a year ago. “Genesis 9:3: ‘Everything that lives and moves about will be food for you, just as I gave you the green plants, I now give you everything.’ The students wrote that (the verse) meant if God is in charge of our life, he will give us everything we need.”
Students then took pictures of pollinators in the garden, made powerpoint-type slideshows and presented their final projects to the class. The fifth graders eagerly recalled the lesson and their inspiration for wanting to see the garden grow even more.
“We read a nonfiction article about monarch butterfly waystations, and they asked, ‘Can we do this?’” Miller recalls. “I said, sounds like a really good idea; so I asked Father (Zenthoefer) that February what he thought about it.”
Father Zenthoefer was on board, drawing elaborate blueprints bringing two soccer goals together and combining three new beds for monarchs and other butterflies. He also emphasized conservation efforts, such as water conservation with rain barrels, a drainage system and composting.
Davie Sue Wallace of the Indiana Native Plant Society guided them by recommending host plants like milkweed to supply a base for the butterflies to lay their eggs. Nectar plants including lantana, sunflowers and morning glories provide food and attract pollinators to the area. The garden currently houses dragonflies, hummingbirds, bees and wasps, and butterflies. The collaboration with the community at large has been key to success.
Donations and collaboration from local sources including the Indiana Native Plant Society, the Evansville Soil Conservation Society, Colonial Garden Center, Holy Spirit School Student Council and the City of Evansville have made all the difference.
“The more people experience it, the more it grows,” Father Zenthoefer said. “Somebody said, ‘You know, we should put mulch around the beds,’ so we got mulch from the city of Evansville. Someone said, ‘You should put seating out there,’ and we had these old pews that aren’t being used, so we put them out there. Someone said, ‘You should have a statue of Mary out there,’ and I said great. It’s not hard, and it’s not expensive.”
Father Zenthoefer does not believe that they have come close to spending the original $1,500 for the project, thanks to donations, and there is still room to grow. He would like to see the whole area filled with raised beds, with climbing vines on the surrounding fence. He anticipates the need for at least six additional rain barrels to aid the watering efforts.
Father Zenthoefer readily admits he knows very little about gardening, so he looked for answers in a very modern way: YouTube videos.
“I watched videos about raised beds, about what crops (we) could grow, about pretty well everything,” Father Zenthoefer said. He researched methods of building and creating his own watering system out of rain barrels and a hand-made pump. “It made sense because without this (setup), we’d have to go all the way to the rectory with the hose,” he said.
The food that grows in the garden is harvested and sold after weekend Masses, and the proceeds go to help feed the poor. Crops including watermelon, pumpkins, radishes, lettuce, spinach, eggplant, beets, green peppers, parsley, cilantro, oregano, basil, chives, tomatoes and potatoes are flourishing.
“What’s beautiful now is the kids taking ownership, kids coming up with new ideas,” Father Zenthoefer said. “It’s become more than I could ever imagine.”