FFA plant sale continues to expand in Shawano

Lee Pulaski •

Leader photo by Lee Pulaski Shawano Community High School agriculture student Kalli Parson looks over some of the hundred of plants and flowers growing in the FFA greenhouse on campus. The students are gearing up for the school’s annual plant sale, and it will be the last sale held in the current greenhouse, as a new freestanding facility will be built over the summer.

Shawano FFA members are seeing green, not only in the plants growing in abundance in their greenhouse but in the amount of cash that will be rolling their way.

The students in the horticulture class at Shawano Community High School have been diligently tending to the plants during class and often during their own free time. The tradition has been in existence for more than 20 years, and the reward is providing the community with beautiful plants and flowers to put in their homes and gardens.

For some students, though, rewards come in other forms. The hands-on class provides students an escape from the sterile classroom into a place where life and death are literally in their hands.

“It’s calming. Because I spend so much time in nature, for me, this is just like being outside,” said Kayla Clark, a SCHS senior.

Clark said she grew up helping her mom take care of the garden at the family home just outside of Shawano, and she also helped her grandmother tend her garden near Red River.

She isn’t completely committed to it yet, but Clark thinks she might continue her plant and agriculture studies into college.

The class is also very relaxing for Lydia Williams, another SCHS senior. She eagerly described what she was working on in one corner of the greenhouse.

“I’m just taking all of the dead leaves and things, kind of prettying up the plants, since we’re getting ready for the sale next week,” Williams said. “Also, I’m rotating them so the growth is better overall.”

Not rotating the plants would result in some plants having more growth than others due to the advantage of a better position to access sunlight, according to Williams.

“It makes you feel a lot better when you come out here, rather than sitting in a classroom,” she said. “This is stuff that I can use in the future.”

The students started working on the plants in late January. Having the greenhouse has allowed them to prepare the plants in a controlled environment.

Of course, even the safe confines of the greenhouse did not guarantee safety for the plants, according to horticulture teacher Missy Goers. The blizzard in April created a snowdrift that covered much of the greenhouse and cut off the light plants need to grow, and because the greenhouse is connected to the school itself, there was not another side where sunlight could come in and keep the plants thriving.

“When you came out here, there was no light coming in,” Goers said. “I couldn’t open the side vents. It took a good week for that (drift) to recede enough so I could open the vent and get air in here.”

Despite the snowdrift, most of the plants made it through, according to Goers, and a new greenhouse that will break ground this summer will be freestanding so that even if another historic snowstorm rears its ugly head, the plants should make it through.

“This structure has been here since the new school, and that’s been 20 years,” Goers said.

The plant sale is the biggest classroom project, but there is also a mum sale in the fall and poinsettias grown for the Christmas season. The money from the plant sale, which begins Wednesday, goes back into the horticulture program.

“It’s literally the seed money for next year,” Goers said.

The plant sale is also the most challenging for the students, according to Goers, because there is such a wide variety of plants, compared to the single plants grown for the other two sales. She said the students have to know about the different plants’ needs — the amount of water needed, which plants need more sunlight than others, pest identification and control, etc.

“I have these kids all year long, so it’s a good, gradual step,” Goers said. “The mums they don’t have for real long, and the poinsettias they have longer, but it’s just one plant. By the time they get to spring, they’re more prepared for the diversity.

“During the fall semester, we spend more time in the classroom learning about photosynthesis. They have to know about plant requirements, why we have to do the stuff we do the second semester. They put that into action here.”

The snowstorm was a unique situation, but there have been other issues, such as pests harming certain plants. The greenhouse provides a living lab where students see what works and learns from any mistakes made.

Goers didn’t know how many plants there were for this year’s sale, but it was hard to move around in the greenhouse without encountering a planting bed or hanging basket.

“The hanging baskets I know we have over 200,” Goers said. “That’s the most we’ve ever had.”

There will be even more than that next year with the new greenhouse, she said. The new facility will be double the size of the current greenhouse, which will continue to be used as a sustainable agriculture facility for the FFA’s aquaponics program and other things.

“They’ll have the greenhouse ready for us to go in at the beginning of the next school year,” Goers said. “It’s going to provide more opportunities, and we’re going to be taking on new projects.”

One of those new projects is already under way. The FFA has partnered with the Shawano Business Improvement District to provide the hanging flower baskets to beautify Shawano’s downtown area, but now that partnership is expanding to provide plants and flowers for the freestanding pots.

“To have those community connections, we’ll give the students the experience of working with a real client where they have to stay within budget, they have to meet with the clients and give them their ideas,” Goers said. “It’s more than a mock kind of experience. Then, in the summer, they get to see their plants and their design in place.”

The plant sale can last anywhere from one to three weeks, according to Goers said, depending on the rush of people coming in during the opening days.

Many of the students coming into the class have little plant experience, but when they’re done with the class, some of them go to apply for summer jobs at Qualheim’s True Value and other greenhouses in the area.

“It’s a win-win. They get a job, and the business gets an employee that has the experience,” Goers said. “I have a couple of students going back to True Value for their second summer.”

Like the students, Goers finds being surrounded by living plants to be soothing.

“It’s nice for me, too, because at the end of the day, I get to come out here and relax in the greenhouse,” Goers said.