2017-11-30 / News

New Life Breathed Into Community Hoop House Gardens at St. Ignace; Volunteers Needed

By Stephanie Fortino


The hoop house gardens behind St. Ignace Elementary and Middle School have been revived. Kathy Perry (right) is spearheading the project with the help of Charlee Brissette (left) a Community Health Educator with the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians, and Betsy Dayrell-Hart of the Mackinac County Wellness Coalition (not pictured). Ms. Perry and Miss Brissett are shown at the community garden Thursday, October 26. The hoop house gardens behind St. Ignace Elementary and Middle School have been revived. Kathy Perry (right) is spearheading the project with the help of Charlee Brissette (left) a Community Health Educator with the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians, and Betsy Dayrell-Hart of the Mackinac County Wellness Coalition (not pictured). Ms. Perry and Miss Brissett are shown at the community garden Thursday, October 26. Local residents have been working behind the St. Ignace Elementary and Middle School to revive the hoop house gardens, continuing the project’s original mission to engage students in food production. For a couple of years, the Mackinac County Wellness Coalition has been looking for a volunteer to take on the project, and Kathy Perry of St. Ignace has volunteered to lead the effort to fulfill community service requirements for her Master Gardener certification. When activity at the garden ramps up in the spring, more volunteers will be needed to ensure the garden’s success in the future.


Layers of cardboard line the beds inside the hoop house (shown) to prevent weeds from growing. The cardboard is covered with a layer of straw, a layer of newspaper, and finally soil where plants are planted. Layers of cardboard line the beds inside the hoop house (shown) to prevent weeds from growing. The cardboard is covered with a layer of straw, a layer of newspaper, and finally soil where plants are planted. Behind the school, the two hoop houses stand tall in an area protected by the U-shaped building. The organic gardens were started in the summer of 2005 as a joint project with the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians Youth Education and Activities and MSU Extension. Tribe Youth Services Coordinator Sue St. Onge led the project. She envisioned the gardens to be used as a teaching tool for school children, which the new volunteers will continue. Having run a food cooperative store in Kalamazoo, Ms. St. Onge has always been interested in connecting people, especially children, to their food, and the garden provided a valuable, hands-on opportunity for local students.


Volunteers installed plastic sheeting on the hoop house garden frames October 21. Here, the sheeting is laid out on the ground before being placed on the frame. Pictured are (from left) Betsy Dayrell-Hart, Rick Perry, John Brissette, and Charlee Brissette. (Photograph by Kathy Perry) Volunteers installed plastic sheeting on the hoop house garden frames October 21. Here, the sheeting is laid out on the ground before being placed on the frame. Pictured are (from left) Betsy Dayrell-Hart, Rick Perry, John Brissette, and Charlee Brissette. (Photograph by Kathy Perry) “It deepens that connection with the earth and nutrition,” she reflected. “I just saw the garden as an opportunity to tell the kids about Mother Earth and environmentalism and how things are connected.”

A few years ago, the garden stalled as reorganization and personnel changes meant there wasn’t enough resources to maintain it, she said. Now Ms. Perry is spearheading the effort, working closely with Betsy Dayrell-Hart of the Mackinac County Wellness Coalition and Charlee Brissette, the new Community Health Educator for the Sault Tribe.


This zigzag “wiggle wire” keeps the plastic sheeting that forms the hoop house walls in place, even during inclement weather and high winds. A group of local volunteers installed the plastic sheeting in October, and soon doors will be added to the ends of the hoop houses, finishing winter preparations. This zigzag “wiggle wire” keeps the plastic sheeting that forms the hoop house walls in place, even during inclement weather and high winds. A group of local volunteers installed the plastic sheeting in October, and soon doors will be added to the ends of the hoop houses, finishing winter preparations. Continuing the original intent of the project, Ms. Perry hopes students gain appreciation for food production and learn how simple it actually is to grow their own food. The garden will also help the students understand the natural resources available in the Eastern Upper Peninsula, Miss Brissette noted.

“The whole point is [to get them to understand that food] doesn’t come in a can and it doesn’t come in a bag,” Ms. Perry said. “It’s to have them see the whole cycle.”

Miss Brissette agreed, saying, “There’s a growing interest in sustainable living and people are caring more not only about food, but about other ways of living off the land.”


During a workday in October, volunteers install tracks on the frames of the hoop houses behind the St. Ignace Elementary School, including (from left) John Brissette, Rick Perry, Kathy Perry, and Betsy Dayrell-Hart. (Photograph by Charlee Brissette) During a workday in October, volunteers install tracks on the frames of the hoop houses behind the St. Ignace Elementary School, including (from left) John Brissette, Rick Perry, Kathy Perry, and Betsy Dayrell-Hart. (Photograph by Charlee Brissette) So far, the volunteers have prepared the gardens for the next growing season. In October, they installed plastic sheeting on the hoop house frames for the first time in many years. The plastic is held in place with zigzag-shaped “wiggle wire.” It took about 45 minutes for the volunteers to pull the plastic sheeting taught over the hoops and place the wires into tracks to hold the plastic in place.

Doors will eventually be installed on the ends of the hoop houses to completely enclose the area. Since the plastic sheeting can survive harsh weather conditions, plants should be able to survive throughout the winter. The hoop house will act like a greenhouse. As sun shines, the air inside the hoop house will become warmer than the air outside.


John Brissette, father of Sault Tribe Community Health Educator Charlee Brissette, stands beneath the plastic sheeting at the hoop house garden during installation as fellow volunteers pull it over the frame October 21. (Photograph by Betsy Dayrell-Hart) John Brissette, father of Sault Tribe Community Health Educator Charlee Brissette, stands beneath the plastic sheeting at the hoop house garden during installation as fellow volunteers pull it over the frame October 21. (Photograph by Betsy Dayrell-Hart) Inside the hoop house, there will be eight rows of plants, divided down the middle by a center walkway.

A layer of cardboard lines the beds inside the hoop house to prevent weeds from growing in the garden. On top of the cardboard is a layer of straw, then a layer newspaper, and finally soil into which the plants are sown.

“Hoop houses extend the growing season,” Ms. Perry said. “They protect the plants from frost and you can plant almost into December. And you can plant earlier, too, because the dirt inside will be warmer.”


Rick Perry (from right) and John Brissette fit the wiggle wire into tracks to hold the hoop house plastic in place during a workday October 21. (Photograph by Charlee Brissette) Rick Perry (from right) and John Brissette fit the wiggle wire into tracks to hold the hoop house plastic in place during a workday October 21. (Photograph by Charlee Brissette) The hoop houses were originally installed, Ms. St. Onge said, so that plants could grow inside when school is in session.

Ms. Perry plans to plant bulbs each fall and winter so they sprout early in the spring for the students to see. Currently only kale and garlic are planted, and their progress will be monitored. In addition to cold temperatures, said Dr. Dayrell-Hart, the winter is also a challenging time for plants to grow here because of limited light.

“If we can keep something alive and growing through the December and January, that’s a plus,” she said.

After the first of the year, Ms. Perry hopes to work with elementary school students to start seedlings for vegetable plants. Students will eventually help plant those in the garden, and she would like to get as many students as possible involved.

“My goal is to be able to go into the classrooms and talk to the kids about gardening,” she said.

Dr. Dayrell-Hart agreed, noting, “Learning about soils, plant biology, teamwork, and botany are the kinds of things you can learn while getting involved with gardening.”

And learning in a garden gets children active outdoors while learning lessons that can be applied to many subjects, according to Ms. St. Onge.

“A garden provides endless learning opportunities for youth,” she said. “You can teach curriculum writing in a garden, you can make sense of math concepts that seem foreign in a classroom, you can learn the life cycle of plants deeper than just seeing a diagram.”

The community garden also features a composter and rain barrel she acquired to help further lessons for students, teaching about the circle of life, water conservation, and how different life would be in arid climates. Such lessons help instill a sense of environmental stewardship and social responsibility in students, she said, while teaching them practical skills.

“A lot of kids really don’t have a connection with where our food comes from,” Ms. St. Onge said. “Self efficiency and sovereignty: It starts with growing your own food.”

Looking to next year, the community garden project will need volunteers to help maintain the crops, like 20-minute shifts to help water the plants.

Those interested in volunteering for the community garden can contact Kathy Perry at kperry6826@gmail.com or Mackinac County Wellness Coalition leader Jennifer Eyler at jeyler@saulttribe.net .

The food produced at the community garden will be donated to the school or distributed to students, Ms. Perry said.

This summer, Ms. St. Onge grew a traditional Three Sisters Garden between the hoop houses. Using longstanding tribal knowledge, she grew the “sisters” of corn, beans, and squash. The three crops work together and nourish each other, as the corn provides the structure for the beans to grow, the beans provide nutrients by fixing nitrogen in the soil, and the squash control weeds with their large leaves.

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