Red Cloud’s Greenhouse and Garden—Planting the Seeds of Change

posted June 30, 2016 

This summer at Red Cloud, students taking summer courses are studying history, math and science in the standard way—at a desk and inside the classroom. But they are also experiencing a different kind of learning: outside in the sun and wind, under the endless Pine Ridge sky. By helping to care for Red Cloud’s greenhouse and school garden, they are learning how to produce nutritious foods while caring for the earth.  

“We’ve been working with our summer school students to plant seeds in the greenhouse—and once the seeds begin to grow, students either transplant them into the garden or take them home to plant near their own homes,” said Garrett Waters, a Red Cloud volunteer teacher who has shepherded the development of the greenhouse and garden over the last three years. “They’ve had the chance to participate in the science of growing and then to harvest their very own plants—and that can be a powerful experience.”

When Garrett arrived on campus in the summer of 2013, plans for the greenhouse were still being finalized. As construction began, Red Cloud’s administrators began looking for teachers with experience in agriculture and nutrition. Garrett—who has a history in organic farming—jumped at the chance to create lesson plans rooted in the work of growing healthy food using sustainable methods. Once the greenhouse was operational, he launched the school’s garden, which has doubled in size over the last two years.

During his time on campus, Garrett has shared his knowledge with students of all ages—from teaching a senior elective on fundamental plant science to educating first graders about how to nourish a seed to sprout. He says the greenhouse and garden have provided students with a unique, hands-on learning experience that will stay with them as they grow.


“I taught my first two health classes before the greenhouse was built. We talked about food science and micronutrients and the process of growing, but it felt so disconnected from the actual experience. But now with access to the greenhouse and the garden, our students can actually put their hands in the dirt and see the results of their work as they learn what’s happening in the soil,” said Garrett.

“This spring, I worked with fifth graders on planting spinach and kale. The students cared for the early seedlings and then in mid-May they transplanted them into the garden. Today many of the students are harvesting and eating the healthy food they grew, able to see the process from start to finish. When comparing that experience to simply reading about it in a text book, it was really night and day.”

In addition to providing experiential learning, Garrett has also focused on connecting health education to critical social and community issues. He worked with ninth graders to understand what it means to live in a “food desert”—where citizens have little or no access to affordable, nutritious foods. Garrett helped his students identify steps they could take as young people to create positive change—including learning to grow and produce the healthy foods that are so desperately needed on the reservation. 

Sustainability is another important lesson that has risen to the top of Garrett’s curricula. Students have learned the importance of allowing the soil to recover and about the need to replenish its nutrients. This spring the seniors in Garrett’s fundamental plant science class visited a local ranch to learn about the process of composting, and then returned to campus to add compost to their own garden beds. This summer Garrett is taking summer school students fishing for carp, which are full of the nutrients needed to replenish soil. Students will dry the fish using sawdust and salt and then fill the garden beds with the resulting, nourishing substance.

With his volunteer service nearly complete, Garrett is preparing to leave Red Cloud and return to the work of farming. But he says he will miss working side-by-side with students in the garden—and watching their knowledge of plant science expand. Their unique perspectives and challenging questions have helped him to become a better teacher, and deepened his own passion for producing healthy, sustainable food.

“Recently, in celebration of Earth Day, we worked with students to plant close to 50 berry-producing bushes that are native to Pine Ridge. These are plants that live out in the Black Hills and hopefully will produce fruit for many years to come,” said Garrett. “I love imagining our current fifth graders cultivating these plants when they are in high school, continuing to build on their knowledge of how we can create healthy, sustainable food systems. I feel honored and grateful to be part of the Red Cloud family having learned so much from the people, culture, and land out here. Working with students in the garden and greenhouse was a privilege and I pray our relationship with food continues to grow stronger for years to come."


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Photos © Red Cloud Indian School