Lessons Etched in the Earth
School House Gardens
Story and photography by Sandra Wendel
Nestled in the sandy soil between the Platte and Elkhorn rivers lies School House Gardens, where Lisa McCloskey and Ken Christensen run 10 planted acres of the 80 acres surrounding their 1890s schoolhouse in Waterloo, Nebraska.
If you haven’t seen their bountiful stands at Village Pointe Farmers Market or on Sundays at the market in Valley, Nebraska, you may have eaten their produce and not known it. Several area restaurants are regular customers for the grown-local and sometimes exotic offerings, including The Grey Plume, Jams and Pitch Pizzeria.
“We continue to be amazed at the quality of produce that Lisa and Ken are growing,” said Chef Clayton Chapman, owner of the award-winning The Grey Plume. “We are grateful they raise both fruits and vegetables that allow us to preserve items for the winter months as well as supply our menu with fresh produce for all four seasons. They have become instrumental in our restaurant’s operation, and we are grateful to have the opportunity to work with them during Nebraska’s harvest seasons.”
The School’s Fertile Ground
Now about that schoolhouse. The two-story structure was a working rural school until 1983, so plenty of locals retell fond memories when buying produce. Ken bought the property in 1990 for a home and found not only the original chalkboards under drywall but layers of oak flooring marred by years of school desks being scraped across them.
He and Lisa met in 1999. He is from Fremont, and she, a city girl from Omaha, discovered the country life and a love for getting dirt under her fingernails. That’s when Ken’s hobby of growing tomatoes and corn and giving them away turned into a business.
“We could sell this stuff,” Lisa declared, and thus the small garden plot started growing and continues to grow every year, eventually taking over nearly every square foot of yard in front and back of their schoolhouse/home on the land just off 264th and Blondo streets.
“I’m the picker,” Lisa said. Ken is the planner. Everything is grown from their saved seeds or ordered from catalogs every year and started in February or March in the greenhouses. Perennials abound, including the berry bushes and rhubarb—providing plenty of product for Lisa’s canning, such as zucchini pickles, sold at limited markets.
Good Food from Farm to Fork
When Lisa and Ken ventured into their first downtown market 10 years ago, Lisa set up with colorful tablecloths and display baskets. “We sold out,” Ken recalled. “The next week, all the farmers started using tablecloths and baskets. That’s what I grew up with,” Lisa said, remembering her family trips to Ireland and shopping colorful local markets in the small villages.
They’re not afraid to try growing anything. Lisa proudly showed off her hazelnut bushes, and Ken admitted his artichokes were a learning experience this year. Coming are figs and decorative eucalyptus. Other uncommon crops, often by customer request, are pole beans, edamame, exotic radishes, celery (yes, in Nebraska despite the naysayers) and high-antioxidant novelty Indigo Rose cherry tomatoes.
We walked the rows, Lisa pulling a weed here and there, Ken grabbing a ripe strawberry tomato. “I taste everything,” Ken said, as he bit into the juicy bell-shaped fruit. And they encourage the high school kids who help with the weeding and watering to taste everything they grow so they become familiar with the produce and its taste.
Turning Lettuce into Lettuce
“Every year we rotate [what is planted in various beds] so we don’t have to use pesticides or fungicides,” Ken said. Although their practices are organic, School House Gardens isn’t USDA certified because the buffer zone to prevent their crops from being oversprayed from surrounding conventional fields of corn and beans is not wide enough. However, Ken said neighboring farmers are quite careful to respect the School House Gardens’ fields.
Year-round Lisa works as dietary manager at Orchard Gardens, an assisted-living facility. Ken is an independent contractor for Capital Express. But from Friday through Sunday, both lug the overflowing blue totes filled with fresh-picked produce to the weekly farmers markets and drop off to restaurants and several area residents who signed up for their community-supported agriculture (CSA) program. With the CSA program, farmers like Lisa and Ken supply a weekly box of produce in exchange for an upfront payment. “That’s literally seed money in the spring when we need it,” Lisa said. “It says people trust us as farmers and are willing to take the risk with us. They also approve of our growing practices.”
Judy Argintean, a CSA member who receives her box each of the 20 weeks of the season, said, “I won’t buy my fresh stuff anywhere else. I love trying recipes for vegetables I’ve never tasted before.”
A Blooming Fall Bounty
In the ground now are late-season crops of lettuce, carrots, beets, bok choy, turnips, cabbage, squash, gourds, heirloom watermelon (“The ones with seeds,” said Ken, because he thinks they taste the best) and of course Halloween and pie pumpkins.
Next year expect bounty from newly planted orchards of peach, plum, pear, cherry and apple trees. Down the road a few years, the 500 Christmas seedlings should be ready. And eventually Lisa and Ken would like to add a store on-site to sell produce every day in season.
The biggest challenges are unreliable rains—although multicolored hoses snake everywhere to feed thousands of feet of drip-line irrigation. Other challenges: ever-present weeds and those darned iridescent Japanese beetles that eat foliage and have no natural predators. “I walk the fields every day,” Ken said. “I’m protecting my babies. A man who plants a seed and watches it grow has to believe in God.”
Sandra Wendel, a local book editor and writer, cultivates stories.