School Garden Spotlight – St. Francis of Assisi

Mike Herries and his wife, Paula, are the garden leaders at St. Francis of Assisi parish and school.  As the STREAM Coordinator at the school, Mike is passionate about connecting the garden to his curriculum.  He joined St. Francis of Assisi School as a substitute teacher when he returned to St. Louis after Hurricane Katrina destroyed his family’s home.  His engineering background (and excitement for learning) allowed him to transition easily into his current full-time position leading the STREAM curriculum. In 2017, he discovered Gateway Greening’s Youth Garden Program and decided to start a garden. The parish and faculty were immediately on board and continue to be huge supporters of the garden. 

The St. Francis of Assisi garden is particularly busy this spring with Gateway Greening’s First Peas to the Table Contest!  Using Gregor Mendel’s pea plant studies, Mike’s students performed their own crossbreeding experiments with peas they’d grown in the garden. Though Mike doesn’t expect a large harvest of peas, (last year, they won the award for “Most Patient” peas!) the contest has attracted more students to participate in the garden. 

Mike found that sending out a monthly email with garden updates has engaged more teachers to get involved.The students enjoy getting outdoors and are often shocked to learn where their food comes from. They’re always excited to try new vegetables growing in the garden! Several teachers incorporate the garden into their classrooms and try to get the students to walk through the garden every day. The pre-K teachers take their students through the garden each day and are growing tomato seedlings in their classrooms. 

While Mike works primarily with middle schoolers, he’s able to interact with students of all ages in the garden. He and Paula are particularly proud of their pumpkin graveyard lesson in the fall, where the students observed their pumpkin harvest decompose. 

Mike prides himself on the fact that the St. Francis of Assisi garden “is all about learning, not production!”.  He is not afraid to lose some vegetables to pests and says that “bugs are a learning opportunity!”  Most of the produce is eaten right off the vine, but when there are leftovers, the harvest is given to members of the parish. Providing experiential learning for the students is very important to Mike, and the garden plays a key role in his lessons.  Mike hopes to include a pollinator garden, sensory beds, a chicken coop, and bees in the future. 

His advice for other school garden leaders: “Collaborate with other teachers to find out what they enjoy doing.  If the garden doesn’t feel like a chore, they’ll be more eager to participate.”


Written by Rachel Wilson, Education VISTA


Youth Garden Spotlight: Girls Inc. Garden and Sheila Irving

Girls Inc. is a nonprofit that provides educational and cultural after-school and summer programs in safe environments for girls and encourages them to realize their potential.  They offer after-school and summer programs for girls K-12.  Learn more about the organization here.

Sheila Irving has been the garden leader since she started with Girls Inc. over seven years ago.  She had no gardening experience prior to the job, but saw they are empty, forgotten raised beds as a challenge!  Since her very first planting of tomatoes and onions, the garden has grown to 12 raised beds, producing a variety of vegetables.  Sheila proudly shares that they’ve grown everything from watermelon and cantaloupe to broccoli and cauliflower!

Students in the Girls Inc. After School and Summer programs contribute to the garden’s maintenance and are able to use the produce they’ve grown to experiment in the building’s kitchen.

In the spring, the students start seeds at the school and take them home to care for until they are ready to transplant into the garden.   The seed starting “homework” empowers the girls to be responsible for their seedlings and allows them to observe the plant life cycle.

Sheila is also involved with the Eureka! STEM Career Development program at Girls Inc. and finds ways to incorporate the garden into the curriculum.   The program provides hands-on STEM experiences and personal development activities, increasing the likelihood that they will pursue higher education and careers in STEM fields.  Sheila encourages the girls to dream big – this winter, a group of her Eureka! students designed a 3D model for a future garden plan that included an irrigation system and greenhouse. The project won a Eureka! STEM competition and the girls plan to use their prize money to make their designs a reality in the Girls Inc. garden.

Over the summer, the garden is still buzzing with excitement from girls K-12 who are a part of the Girls Inc. summer program.  Having this program allows the students to interact and learn in the garden during the summer months when a school garden is often forgotten.

What Sheila enjoys most about being in the garden is seeing the girls outside working hard and having fun.   Throughout the gardening season, Sheila and the students hold mini-market stands to sell their produce to parents during after-school pick-up. Sheila credits these interactive moments for the success of the garden: “The students are excited, so the parents get excited, and they all go and tell their friends about the garden, and it spreads throughout the community.”  Sheila hopes to continue promoting the garden into the community and providing opportunities where the students at Girls Inc. can teach their peers about gardening.

Sheila proves that you don’t need horticultural experience to lead a school garden, just dedication and not being afraid to get dirty!

By Rachel Wilson, Education Americorps VISTA