Crouching in a greenhouse nearing 100 degrees, an elementary school-aged boy gingerly pulls celery starts out of black plastic pots. As his two friends dig holes in the soil — four across and five down the raised bed — he carefully shakes the excess soil from the roots and brings the modest seedling within an inch of his face to examine the plant he's been shepherding since it was a seed a few weeks ago.

A classmate across the plot wipes his hands on his jeans and declares the plants ready for transplant.

"Wait, they need the special water," the other boy says, darting to retrieve a few Dixie cups of fertilizer-enriched water from a 5-gallon bucket.

"The plants are stressed today," he explains upon his return. "They need this to grow big and strong." The other boys nod knowingly — the garden manager had taught them that a half hour earlier.

Together the boys pour quasi-equal amounts of the liquid into the holes they've made. One by one, they put the roots of each start in the middle of a hole and push the surrounding soil inward to hold the plant in place.

Garden origins

These boys and nearly 30 other students at the Tebughna Elementary/High School in Tyonek have been growing plants for the community's garden for weeks. On Friday, May 13, the students moved the plants — tomatoes, lettuce, herbs, beans, corn, zucchini, watermelon, carrots and pumpkins — from the school cafeteria where they'd been incubating to the high-tunnel system nearby. In the weeks to come they'll plant their field vegetables — potatoes and carrots — and tend to their berry bushes, too.

Spring planting in the Tyonek, Alaska, community garden. (Bailey Berg / Alaska Dispatch News)

The garden is run by the Tyonek Tribal Conservation District, a nonprofit whose mission is to conserve and promote the wise use of natural resources.

"Subsistence foods are really important in Tyonek," TTCD executive director Christy Cincotta said. "Spernak Air is the only way into town, so they're very tied to natural resources."

Though the entire community benefits from the project, it's the students, Cincotta said, that make the garden possible.

"This project wouldn't exist without the youth," Cincotta said. "They're an integral part of this program. They're so excited and it instills a sense of pride. Being able to plant a seed and have it go back to your community instills confidence to do anything."

Gardening economy

As part of their school curriculum, students and teachers use the growing plants for lessons on math, science and home economics. Three student interns also help with plant management.

"The garden has been a really unifying project for the community," Cincotta said. "The kids can tell you all about the nutrients, flowering process, pollination, everything. They'll teach their parents what they've learned when they come to the market because they're so excited about having that knowledge to share."

Last year the garden started giving punch cards — similar to coffee shop loyalty cards — to track volunteer hours and reward the most avid helpers. Five hours of work equals $10 of produce.

"That goes a long way here," Cincotta said. "It's a way to keep money in Tyonek and allows us to hire youth. It's all part of a long-term goal to fund people here."

This year the students will also help tend to another garden — this one for flowers — outside of the community center. The garden is planted in an old wooden dory that was once used for subsistence fishing. On the first day of planting, the students covered their palms with light blue paint and pressed them to the outside of the boat, creating a mosaic of handprints.

A hands-on community project in Tyonek, Alaska, repurposing a wooden boat as a flower planter. (Bailey Berg / Alaska Dispatch News)

The handprints are a common theme at the garden. The Tyonek Grown project's logo shows three hands and a plant — it was inspired by a picture of the students all reaching into a plot to help push dirt over the first planted crop during a previous summer.

Cincotta's favorite story from the garden project involves a young boy — who had been an avid garden helper all season — wanting to know how many hours he needed to weed to earn a bag of green beans.

"He was so excited about having earned them himself and to get to have a healthy snack," Cincotta said. "We have a picture of him with his beans in our office."

Nicole Swenson, the conservation director, said her favorite garden memory was watching the students digging for potatoes and comparing the size and shape of what they found. The potatoes are usually the last thing to be harvested in a season, but this year, thanks to a new hydroponic system that will be installed in a classroom at the school, the students will be able to grow vegetables year round.

Last year Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium highlighted TTCD's work to promote food security through the Tyonek garden in its 2015 Healthy Portraits Project, an initiative that uses photography to document and celebrate good health in Alaska communities. ANTHC took portraits of the students working at the beginning of the season, then again halfway through the season. They came back at the end of the season to take pictures of the students holding their portraits. Those photographs will soon hang in the school. Learn more about the project here.

Harvest

First dibs on the produce (which totaled over 1,800 pounds last year) goes to the elders in the community. The remaining produce is either sold at farmers markets in Tyonek or Anchorage or used as part of school lunches — the students have had zucchini bread, veggie platters and roasted pumpkin seeds to supplement their meals.

"What I love about this is that the students see the whole process," Cincotta said. "They start with growing the seeds and end with eating what they've grown. We're growing food and growing gardeners."

This story was sponsored by Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium, a nonprofit Tribal health organization designed to meet the unique health needs of more than 150,000 Alaska Native and American Indian people living in Alaska.

This article was produced by the special content department of Alaska Dispatch News in collaboration with ANTHC. Contact the editor, Jamie Gonzales, at jgonzales@alaskadispatch.com. The ADN newsroom was not involved in its production.