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'This is my happy place': Perham High School greenhouse is back on-site and in full bloom

The Perham High School greenhouse is back on school grounds after a long process to get it moved from the former high school location. After some set up, students were able to use it again for the spring 2022 semester.

Perham High School students care for their plants in the newly-moved and updated greenhouse.
Perham High School students care for their plants in the newly-moved and updated greenhouse.
Contributed / Sue Tostenson
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PERHAM — The idea for an improved Perham High School greenhouse was planted about a year ago, and now, that idea's in full bloom. The recently-relocated and upgraded greenhouse saw its first successful growing season this past spring semester.

The high school has long had a greenhouse for students to learn and grow, but for the past few years, it was located off-site as it awaited a new permanent home. It had remained on the former school grounds for a while after the new high school was built, and then was moved to a temporary site until ready for use.

"The importance of having a greenhouse on-site allows our science and agriculture team to expand learning opportunities for students at PHS," said Principal Ehren Zimmerman. "We live in the middle of a highly successful agricultural community and region, and we want to be able to prepare students for very successful careers in these fields."

Before students could use the greenhouse this year, it needed to be set up and made continuously operational. That was the job of Perham School District Building Manager Russ Winkels. Because the greenhouse is floorless, he and the school decided to put concrete runways around where tables in the greenhouse sit. With that set-up, instead of a full floor, water can drain through the tables and into the sand below without pooling on the ground.

Once the structure's foundation was built, workers were able to move the greenhouse on top of it.

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"I thought it went quite well," Winkels said of the set-up process. "It was all sort of a little rush to leave because we had classes that were being offered, so we wanted to make sure students had a warm environment."

Though he saw this as an experimental year for the greenhouse, he thought it went very well — both in terms of set-up and plant growth.

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Perham High School's greenhouse before and after the interior was filled with tables and student-grown plants.
Contributed / Russ Winkels

Perham High School teachers Sue Tostenson and Shell Tumberg taught science and agricultural classes in the greenhouse this past spring. Tostenson enjoyed the time in there with her students, she said, and she could tell they enjoyed it, too.

"You can have as many different kinds of students — top-notch, straight-A students to students that struggle in school — and it's kind of cool to see because they all enjoy it," Tostenson said. "They all get some benefit out of it, which I think is awesome."

Tumberg taught agriculture-focused classes, such as horticulture and landscaping. Tostenson, a science teacher, was able to hold her botany class in the greenhouse.

"It's fun; the kids love it," Tostenson said. "A couple of my students, they talk about de-stressing, and one kid said, 'This is my happy place.' There's a lot of stress in their lives right now, and a lot of mental health issues with COVID. So I think it's a good break, mentally, to learn about plants and grow plants."

The students learn a lot in the greenhouse. In Tostenson's botany course, for example, they learn about which types of plants grow well in Minnesota or in greenhouses. Tostenson teaches them about the types of vegetables and flowers that grow best in certain environments, their sustainability, soil conditions, and gardening techniques.

"I just think (the lack of plant classes) is a hole in the education system," Tostenson said. "Like, the state standards don't do a lot with plants or agriculture, sustainability… It's just kind of a change from what they normally get."

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Perham High School students work in the greenhouse during spring semester 2022, the first semester of the greenhouse being back on school grounds.
Contributed / Sue Tostenson

With the greenhouse now on-site, teachers like Tostenson and Tumberg are able to fill that educational hole. While only high school courses currently take place in the greenhouse, Tostenson said the school district hopes to eventually hold elementary and middle school science lessons in there, as well, to extend learning to all ages.

She also hopes the school will be able to hold spring plant sales again in the future, which it used to do before the transition. With the help of grant money, the school plans to add some landscaping to the outside of the greenhouse sometime in the future.

Currently, Winkels, Tostenson and the school are working on the structure's ventilation. With better heating and cooling capabilities, plants will be able stay in the greenhouse over the weekends without the risk of being destroyed by bad weather. Winkels is also setting up an automated watering system, so plants can be watered over the weekend without somebody having to come in.

Principal Zimmerman said, "It was a great start this year to have a very successful growing season in the greenhouse, which has been put together very nicely and will continue to grow in the years to come."

Elizabeth (she/her), 23, graduated with a degree in Journalism and Communications from the University of Wisconsin–Stout in 2020. Elizabeth has always had a passion for telling stories about people and specializes in community features, which she uses for her Perham-centered content.
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