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Garden know-how germinates at Conway elementary school

Sue Strack volunteers to share knowledge of plants and flowers at St. Joseph Elementary

Published: October 25, 2021   
Aprille Hanson Spivey
Volunteer Sue Strack teaches four grade levels at St. Joseph Elementary School in Conway about gardening every other week in the spring and fall semesters.

CONWAY -- Donning a straw hat with artificial flowers and vegetables resting on top, Sue Strack pointed to the sea of kindergarten students eager to ask questions about pests in the garden. 

After the lesson, Elizabeth Rappold, 5, told Arkansas Catholic, “I learned that yellow jackets can live under trees,” adding her favorite flower is a rose. 

But she was matter-of-fact, “I already know everything about them.” 

For the past three years, Strack, a St. Joseph parishioner, has been planting seeds of knowledge in students from kindergarten to third grade, helping them grow to appreciate creation.

“I want them to know this is not me; this is not just the sun and the water, this is all because of God that these little seeds (grow).”

“This little girl came up to me after class … (and said) ‘I love coming to my gardening class, I love learning about flowers and stuff,’” Strack, a volunteer, said.

St. Joseph Elementary School principal Courtney Pope said she asked Strack to lead the class after the school garden needed rejuvenation. Several years ago, the school was given a grant to build a garden and third-grade teachers maintained it, but as teachers left and retired, the garden “went away and never came back,” Pope said. 

Because Strack was already a frequent library volunteer (her daughter Christy Pasierb is the school librarian) and assisted with plants around the school, it was a natural fit. 

“She is able to show those kids things about roots and soil that lots of kids right now don't even know about, growing your own fruits and vegetables and what a garden looks like,” Pope said. “It was just the perfect, on a small scale, opportunity to have organic, authentic learning.” 

The class is taught in 15-minute increments for the four grade levels every other week in the spring and fall semesters. The class typically runs from August to October and April to May, depending on the weather and growing seasons. 

The lessons vary for students, from cutting flowers, to learning how to root a hydrangea from a cutting and memorizing gardening poems. One of the favorite lessons, “Bugs, bugs and more bugs,” helps the children understand what bugs help or hurt plantlife. 

Strack, who spent 28 years as a paraprofessional for special education in the public schools, retired in 2019 and began volunteering in the St. Joseph library. 

Strack and her husband Ray, parishioners at St. Joseph since 1969, have multiple flower beds and gardens with a variety of vegetables and flowers on their property, giving her plenty of examples to share with students. She also maintains the school garden. 

Strack credits her grandmother, who lived in Wisconsin, for her love of gardening. 

“My grandmother had a huge garden of flowers and vegetables. The whole block was flowers and that was her flowerbed,” she said. 

While teaching younger children had a bit of a learning curve, Strack said she’s found that keeping the lessons basic is best. It’s important for her to teach them about poisonous plants so they can protect themselves, but also to pass along the wisdom that food doesn’t come from a can. 

“I tell them about my own house and my own plants and my flower bed. It’s more interesting for them to hear a real story,” she said. “They loved when I talked about zinnias and how to dry them and how to get the seeds out of them.” 

She always tells the students she is learning as she goes, always finding little tricks as she’s researching for her lessons. 

“I do enjoy it. It’s just a good thing with the kids, it’s a break from their day,” Strack said. “It’s something they enjoy. If they just take away one little piece, I feel like they got something out of it.” 

Strack also makes sure the students know that everything grows because of God. Her flag hanging by the garden reads, “But only God … makes things grow.” (1 Corinthians 3:7)

“I want them to know this is not me; this is not just the sun and the water, this is all because of God that these little seeds (grow),” she said.

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