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Local

Littlejohn student garden club shows off hard work

Joy Gulotta (left), with the University of Illinois Extension, helps show Jeffrey Fleming, 10, how to deadhead flowers at Littlejohn Elementary School on Tuesday morning in DeKalb.
Joy Gulotta (left), with the University of Illinois Extension, helps show Jeffrey Fleming, 10, how to deadhead flowers at Littlejohn Elementary School on Tuesday morning in DeKalb.

DeKALB – When students return to Littlejohn Elementary School in DeKalb this fall, they will be greeted by massive orange dahlias nodding around the flagpole and red and white gladiolas in front of the school sign. A bed of daisies, marigolds and other flowers stands out brightly against the tan brick of the building.

Last fall, no flowers graced the school grounds. They are the work of the Littlejohn Garden Club, a group of about a dozen fourth- and fifth-graders who began gathering weekly after school in the spring to plan and plant the gardens. Many of the children continued to come once a week during the summer to deadhead, weed and otherwise tend their plants.

“The whole purpose was to teach kids what they can create outside and how they can take responsibility for caring for it, and they really have,” said club coordinator Judy Witasik, a special education assistant in the school.

Littlejohn Principal Char Messmore said she had wanted to landscape the front of the school for years, but was constrained by both time and money. When Witasik completed a master gardener course with the University of Illinois Extension and approached her with the idea for the garden club, Messmore jumped at the idea.

“The front of our building was disgraceful, to be honest,” she said. “It makes a huge difference. I like coming in the front door now. I used to hate coming in the front door.”

The club started when Witasik met master gardener Joy Gulotta last year, and the pair began talking about how they had always wanted to teach children gardening in a hands-on way. They got permission from Messmore to start the club, and relied on plant donations from the master gardeners and on a grant from the Kishwaukee Kiwanis to get started. Witasik had students write essays about why they wanted to join the club, and it began meeting in February with indoor classes about things like soil and seeds.

“Did you know some kids don’t know potatoes grow underground?” Witasik said incredulously. “Did you know some kids think tomatoes come from Jewel?”

Jeffrey Fleming, 10, likes belonging to clubs and already belonged to the school’s science club when he joined the garden club, he said Tuesday as he removed deadheads from marigolds.

“I thought it might be cool to be in the garden club,” he said, surveying the club’s handiwork. “It looks good. That feels good.”

As a fifth-grader, Jeffrey will be one of the club’s senior members this fall. There are plans to plant another flower bed along the back wall of the building, Witasik said, and to turn a walled-in courtyard into a vegetable garden.

“The whole point was to get children outside,” Witasik said. “Now that it looks so gorgeous, I’m hoping more kids will be interested. ... I want them to take ownership and make it a whole neighborhood thing.”

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