The Sopris Sun

Linda Halloran: A garden legacy at CRMS

By Barbara Dills

Sopris Sun Correspondent

The harvest may be over, but if you visited the Colorado Rocky
Mountain School (CRMS) garden on one of these crisp November days, you’d find
Linda Halloran as busy as ever, putting that rich ground to bed for the winter
one last time. After 15 years at the helm of a school gardening program that
has become a national model, she plans to hang up her keys to the CRMS
greenhouse — and the skid-steer — for good on Dec. 31.

Linda’s involvement in the garden started in the late 1990s
when she was working part-time in the CRMS Development Office and someone asked
her to water the small 20-by-30 foot garden plot that existed on campus at that
time. She began to wonder if and how it could be expanded. At that time, the
educational component for gardening was limited by the school calendar;
students would plant in the spring and when they returned in the fall, most
everything would be dead. Eventually, Linda was given the go-ahead to see what
she could do. Outside sources (grants and symposiums) funded the initial
program expansion in the late 1990s, and after a successful two-year pilot, the
school officially took the garden on as a budgeted part of the overall CRMS
program, with Linda filling what was then a part-time director’s role. Not to
be overly cute, but the current CRMS garden program truly has grown organically
since that time.  A few years into
Linda’s tenure, Kay Brunnier, then a CRMS parent, suggested that the school
create a master plan for the garden. The plan helped guide such additions as
the greenhouse and the construction of a small straw bale building — thanks to
the help of CRMS parent volunteers, students and faculty — which now serves
several roles: as the garden office, tool shed, and seed-starting nursery. “The
decision to double the garden’s size in 2009 went beyond even that original
master plan,” says Linda.

Today, the garden is a year-round endeavor that involves
students in every possible phase of the planting, growing and harvesting cycle
while providing 35 percent of the total produce prepared and served by CRMS
kitchen to students, faculty, staff and guests. In 2012, that amounted to
11,600 pounds of organic, super-locally grown food (the kitchen is a five
minute walk from the garden). The total weight count for 2013 is not yet in as
there are still carrots in the ground waiting to be dug.

Linda’s official title is Director of the Garden Program, now a
full-time faculty position. From early spring to late fall, a garden assistant
joins her to help with the rigorous planting, weeding, watering, and harvesting
schedule and to lend a hand with spring and fall student work crews. The past
several summers, CRMS has also offered gardening internships to two college
students, and they, in turn, have provided the extra hands needed to keep the
bountiful CRMS garden going and growing during peak season. 

Over the course of the year, the garden, hoop house, and
greenhouse collectively produce onions, beets, carrots, three to four varieties
of potatoes, raspberries, leeks, kale, Swiss chard, lettuce, cabbage, broccoli,
cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, cucumbers, four summer squashes, six winter squashes,
rhubarb, asparagus, basil, garlic, 15 culinary herbs, apples, apricots,
tomatillos, turnips, rutabagas, over 10 varieties of tomatoes, green and yellow
beans, eggplant, five varieties of peppers, both sweet and hot, five varieties
of cucumbers, watermelon and cantaloupe. (Two of Linda’s favorite plants in
terms of visual beauty are pumpkins and cabbage.) Almost everything grown is
raised from seed. On the rare occasions when the harvest is more than the
school can use, the surplus is donated to Lift-Up.

Linda admits she never could have envisioned all this when she
started.   

 

Meaningful work

“At CRMS, and by extension in the garden, everything comes from
the Holdens’ vision,” says Linda, referring to CRMS founders John and Anne
Holden who incorporated ranching and farming into the educational program from
the school’s beginning in 1953. “They had a full-time organic gardener way back
then, a man and his family. That just shows what true pioneers they were.”
Later in our interview, I ask her if she can comment on how the CRMS program
has influenced others in this valley — the school and community gardens or
those involved in the local food movement. In her typically humble fashion, she
replies, “We were a little out in front, I suppose.” And then she once again
credits the Holdens. “The original rational wasn’t about local food per se.
There was just always the intrinsic sense here that if you have this land, you
should be making some sort of good, constructive use of it.”

Head of School Jeff Leahy passes that credit right back to
Linda. “Linda’s impact on the school goes well beyond the garden itself. While
we are proud of what Linda and the students have been able to produce on less
than one acre of land, we are equally impressed with her ability to establish a
vision for how the garden fits within the school program and our overall
community . . .  Colorado Rocky Mountain
School was founded on a ranch, and we have always viewed our land use as an
essential part of our program.  When
alumni return to campus they often remark on how the garden that Linda has
overseen is much more developed than anything they had during their time here.
… Plenty of schools now have gardens, but few of these gardens are as
productive and as integrated into the educational community as Linda’s.”

The Holdens believed that meaningful work was as important as
academic study to a well-rounded education and that philosophy remains a
guiding principle at the school. The CRMS active program includes not only
sports and other physical activities but required work crews; gardening is one
of many options for students to choose from. Winter and spring garden work
crews help out from January to June, planting seeds and transplanting seedlings
inside until the temperatures warm up enough to prepare the beds for early
crops outside. Spring work crew students also help with preparations for the
plant sale on Mother’s Day weekend, a much anticipated community event that
extends the garden’s reach to the public. On the day of the sale, they help
tally and carry purchases for customers. The plant sale has become a valuable
fundraiser for the garden program, but Linda says it originated in large part
as a way to create meaningful winter and spring work for students, and that
purpose remains central. 

In the fall, garden work crews focus on harvesting and cleaning
up. This writer has enjoyed helping out with the fall potato harvest the past
few years. It is a delight to watch students from all parts of the country —
and as far away as Seoul, Korea  —
discover for the first time where potatoes come from. In addition to digging
and picking, harvesting also includes sorting, washing and weighing. (Oh, and
spraying your friends with the hose, sharing stories of home over the sorting
table, and a healthy dose of flirting, too.) When I ask Linda if she’s seen any
change in the students’ relationship to gardening over the years, she quips,
“They’re still teenagers! But it’s true that a lot of them are coming in now
having had more exposure to eating and growing healthy food at home.”

Says school gardens expert Illene Pevec, “One reason the CRMS
garden has been so phenomenal under Linda’s direction is because it completely
embraces and is embraced by the school philosophy. It represents CRMS. It
represents the commitment to sustainability, community service, hands-on
learning, and work —the necessity of work in everyone’s life. And the kids know
that. And they love the work in the garden because they see the fruits of their
labors.”

 

The kitchen

Linda is quick to point out that a close partnership between
the garden and the CRMS kitchen has been essential to the growth and success of
the program. It’s vital, she feels, that the kids not only see the fruits of
their labors, but that they also get to eat those fruits consistently, and in
many different forms. “Two of the keys to successful school gardens are
integrating with the school schedule and coordinating with the kitchen,” says
Linda. Fiona Pax-O’Donnell, the Director of Food Services at CRMS for the past
six years, is a former restaurant chef who has been more than willing to do
what it takes to incorporate the garden’s bounty into what she and her staff
serve. What they can’t use fresh, they pickle, freeze or otherwise store for
later use in root cellars and above-ground coolers. Linda and Fiona keep
detailed records of what is harvested when and how it is utilized. They meet to
discuss how much of each crop will be needed that year, and they check in
regularly as the growing season unfolds. On the other end is the school’s
composting operation. All food waste, kitchen scraps, and disposable paper goods
from the cafeteria are recycled into garden compost, which students help tend
and, when it is ready, work back into the garden.

And so the cycle from farm to table to farm goes at CRMS.
Thanks to Linda’s hard work and the school’s commitment, it will continue.

 

What’s next?

CRMS has not yet announced Linda’s replacement, but the vision
for what comes next is clear. “The role of the person who follows Linda will be
to build upon the great work that is already being done every day in the
garden,” says Leahy. “The next garden manager will need to keep the students at
the forefront of every decision that is made. Linda’s ‘Garden Learning Center’
is about teaching students through the act of growing food — the priorities
will remain in that order.”

And for Linda? She’s looking forward to not having a schedule
come January. She’ll be freer to travel with her husband, local artist Andy
Taylor, on his sketching and painting trips. She won’t be watching the NOAA
weather forecasts with the same sense of panic or stumbling in the dark at CRMS
to cover plants when a freak freeze is suddenly predicted. But that’s not the
whole story. When I ask her what she’ll miss, at first she laughs and says,
“Driving the skid-steer.” Then, after a thoughtful pause, she adds, “What I’ll
really miss a lot is the opportunity to see kids change before my eyes, not
because of the garden program, but because they have choices. That’s been one
of the coolest things about working at CRMS.”

 

The Students Speak

If I really pay attention to the plants, like the way the
leaves grow out, Linda just taught me that when seeds first sprout, they get
two leaves and all plants’ first two leaves look the same, and then they start
sprouting their leaves that are really unique, so I’ve been paying attention to
that too…. In the fall they have cherry tomatoes growing, so on my way to class
I come by and get some cherry tomatoes and they’re so good, and I get them from
the store as well but they’re not as tasty, they’re more watery and don’t taste
as good. Knowing it came from the garden I think, makes a big difference, and
it doesn’t matter if I picked it or somebody else did, I could have planted
that, it’s just a cool experience.

– Callie, age 16

 

I have worked in the garden for about three years, and I have
seen people I have never really gotten along with and they haven’t gotten along
with me, but in the garden all that sort of changes. There is something to be
said about the conversation in a garden, any garden. It’s usually a lot deeper
and more vibrant than conversations that I have anywhere else.

– Chris

 

Thanks to Illene Pevec
for sharing these interview excerpts. She conducted interviews with CRMS
students in the garden in 2007 and 2008 in conjunction with work she was doing
for her PhD thesis.