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Cathi Knickrehm
Oak Park, IL

Whole Life Insurance

CATHI'S STORY:
KEEPING THE GARDEN GROWING

March 06, 2012

Once upon a time, the exterior landscape at Hatch Elementary in Oak Park, Ill., left much to be desired. Aside from a few benches near the playground area, there was really no reason to linger. That changed when mother of two Cathi Knickrehm spoke up at a PTO meeting and was quickly appointed head of a beautification committee. Soon her initial plan to make the school grounds more appealing had morphed into the idea of planting an organic garden. Heading into its sixth season, the cleverly named Hatch Patch has proved to be a smashing success.

In the growing months, bright blooms nestle beneath a handcrafted mosaic sign spelling out the words "Hatch Patch." Butterflies flit about, drawn to plants sown specifically for them. Children and adults work side by side planting, weeding, pruning, even sampling and later harvesting a wide variety of vegetables and herbs as well as flowers. "We grow things we want to eat, yes, but we also grow things that are just pretty," Knickrehm says.

Although she heads up the venture, Knickrehm professes to have no formal horticultural training. "I'm just your average home gardener," she says, admitting that it has become a passion in the wake of this project. She's also quick to point out that the Hatch Patch is far from a solo effort. Knickrehm and her group of dedicated volunteers planted a pumpkin patch the first year because they lacked time to do a whole garden. At the same time, they learned of a local organization that had received a grant that included money for school gardens. Hatch Elementary was fortunate enough to be chosen as the recipient. "Initially we had no idea what we were doing, and they helped us," she says.

Winter months are set aside for planning in anticipation of a flurry of springtime planting. Since school lets out the first week of June and the goal is for all 320 students to individually sow and later harvest something, it can be challenging. "We don't plant huge crops of any one thing, but we do grow a great variety of things," Knickrehm says. "The point is to encourage kids to be healthy and 'eat a rainbow.' We've learned that kids will eat almost anything they pull out of the ground. They'll pick sun-warmed tomatoes and eat them on the spot. They'll nibble on all sorts of herbs." She describes a kindergartner attending the school's annual Harvest Dinner who asked his parents, "Do you know you can eat the centerpiece?" He then calmly broke off a spear of kale from the table decoration and ate it!

During the peak summer growing months, Knickrehm can be found at the Hatch Patch most days along with her two daughters and other gardening committee members. This core group also hosts drop-in Tuesday night gardening sessions for families who may only have an occasional evening to spare. It's turned out to be a nice way to build community. They hope to work with the music teacher to develop a music night in the garden this summer.

Community figures prominently in this enterprise. After each harvest, the Hatch Patch donates extra produce to a local food pantry. In summer 2011, almost 300 pounds of fresh food went to the food pantry. "That's been extremely gratifying," Knickrehm says. "And it's just one more way to show kids how very beneficial our garden can be. We tell them the garden helps them by providing healthy foods, it helps the earth because we're growing organic, and it helps their community, too."

At the first sign of spring, Knickrehm is only too happy to get her hands dirty and share her passion for gardening with students. "I like being involved. I like knowing all the kids and being able to help them and watch them grow and watch them learn." Given all she has set in motion, both school and community give her a big (green) thumbs up!

Writer: June Allan Corrigan
Photo: Lisa Green