Hopkins Kids and Co. supervisor Kara Wattunen received the first-ever Minnesota Innovator Garden Award on March 3 at the Schoolyard Gardens Conference hosted by the Minnesota Arboretum. Wattunen presented to a packed room on how she built the Gatewood garden, despite budget challenges.
Wattunen attended the conference last year and became inspired and motivated after learning the benefits of school gardens, specifically how they can help students thrive academically, emotionally and socially. This year's conference received the largest attendance to date, attracting 370 participants and 45 different schools throughout the state.
"To hear and see what Kara has worked on with her students is so inspiring," said Barb Mechura, director of nutrition at Hopkins Public Schools. "She took gardening work to a different level."
There are over 190 Minnesota school gardens. When deciding how to approach the project, Wattunen was focused first and foremost on what would be fun for the students. After some research, Wattunen realized she could construct her own hydroponic units using recycled materials. She conceptualized a design using unconventional materials and methods to see what would work the best. Her students co-engineered the garden, and decided what to plant. They had a hand in harvesting throughout the summer as the garden produced beets, spinach, eggplant, squash, chives, lemon balm, and more.
"What led up to this award was really the work of the students in the 3-6 room at Gatewood," said Wattunen. "Our budget, like most, is very small and cannot be solely focused on gardening efforts."