It Was Tomatopalooza at Cowles Montessori School

Girl holding tomatoes.

A fresh batch of tomatoes

La Tomatina is an annual summer festival in a Spanish village. Thousands of people from all over the world come for the “World’s Biggest Food Fight” and hurl more than one hundred metric tons of over-ripe tomatoes at one another.

The “Tomatopalooza” at Cowles Montessori School on Friday morning was kind of like that.

The weather was unseasonably cool and cloudy, not exactly prime ripening conditions. But still there was plenty to harvest. Besides tomatoes the bountiful Cowles gardens are bursting with beans and basil – and carrots. A young bunny was seen hopping through in hopes of helping himself to some of those but seeing the crowd he decided to come back later. There’s plenty of milkweed too – calling all monarchs!

Parents Colleen Kinney and Valerie Ballard are the lead farmers at Cowles. Kinney describes herself as the grant/volunteer coordinator and gives Ballard credit as the green thumb of the operation (she’s a master gardener). Lyn Jenkins was also there, along with AmeriCorps volunteers who rotate during the growing season through 15 school/community gardens in the district. They were frying up some green tomatoes fresh from the vine. Jenkins is a DMPS Nutrition Ed Specialist who works with the district’s farm-to-table program that incorporates homegrown produce into school kitchens and menus.

“Cowles is not one of our summer meal sites but some of the other gardens contribute to those,” she said. “It’s a tie-in with Iowa’s Healthiest State initiative.”

Chips and salsa were being served on a C-for-Cowles-shaped harvest table that was built as an Eagle Scout project by Cowles alum Jonah Larsen. The table was a good workbench for just-picked wildflower arrangements, too.

The peaceful, green Eden in the Cowles backyard was in stark contrast to the noisy paving project that’s happening at the school’s front entrance. Principal Greg Grylls was showing off the “playscape” that’s sprung up in the past year right around the corner of the building from the raised garden beds. Students helped build and plant it as a supplement to the traditional playground equipment.

It’s all part of the distinctly organic vibe at Cowles, the only public Montessori school in the state. The gardens are partially irrigated with water gathered in the school’s rain barrel.

Kinney was quick to note that the school gets lots of outside help with its outdoor classroom.

“Whole Foods gave us a generous grant” she said. “Plus we earned some money from the Des Moines Arts Festival.”

Volunteers manned a concession booth there and those proceeds will go toward a sculpture project that’s an upcoming accent to the gardens. Right in the middle of the tomato patch is a poured concrete base for a commissioned piece by local artist Richard Wright that will also incorporate artwork by Cowles students.

“The sculpture is done,” said Grylls. “We’ll be scheduling an installation.”

Sometime after the new driveway is poured and school resumes. In the meantime, dip a chip or two in Ballard’s homemade Cowles salsa. Scheduling the Tomatina will also have to wait until the tomatoes fatten. Green ones are hard and might hurt. They’re better fried – in a light batter of corn meal and fresh parmesan.

Photos from Cowles’ Tomatopalooza

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