La Salle Retreat Center has gained some new residents — 10 chickens and four ducks, actually. They join hundreds of thousands of bees already living in nine hives on the property.
Their arrival is part of a new program at La Salle called Grow and Learn, to preserve and make better use of the retreat center’s 180 acres of land in Wildwood. Education programs, including a recently launched a gardening club for youth, and hands-on experiences in gardening, farming, cooking and beekeeping also are in the works.
“One of our goals is that we’re learning how to better care for Mother Earth, by providing education and better use of our land and making use of any food waste,” said La Salle’s president Michelle Cook. “We’re focusing on true organic gardening, sustainability, eating healthy, the benefits of farm animals and how they help with gardening. It’s amazing to see how it’s all connected.”
La Salle has partnered with Danielle Meert and Bruce Clithero Sr. of MOshrooms Regenerative Microfarm (which is also part of the Known and Grown STL guide to local food); and Jennifer Taylor of Taylor Apiary, who oversees the beehives, which have already been on the grounds for about a year.
Cook said it’s been her dream to have a garden to support a farm to table concept, providing locally grown produce, eggs and honey for meals at the retreat center. Her bigger plan is to eventually provide food to food pantries and the greater community. Cook attended a Wildwood Business Association meeting, where she met Meert, whose microfarm collects food waste from the public to make compost. Meert expressed an interest in helping to collect food scraps from the retreat center for composting, and the idea grew from there.
“She brought Bruce (Clithero) out and we started planning to do a veggie, herb and pollinator garden,” Cook said. “Then we started talking about chickens.”
A week after La Salle purchased the chicks and ducklings, the coronavirus outbreak arrived in the area, “and we were shut down,” Cook said. With a loss of income because of canceled retreats and other events, it was no longer feasible to continue investing money into the program. Meert and Clithero told her they wanted to continue to help, and worked with St. Louis Composting to donate compost, sourced mulch from local tree trimming companies, and purchased electric fencing. The duo also temporarily took the baby chicks and ducklings to their home to care for them while operations at the retreat center had ceased.
In early May, Cook learned that La Salle was the recipient of a grant from the Lasallian Mission Opportunities Fund, which went toward establishing a Kids’ Garden Club. The free program includes a pollinator or vegetable plant, growing tip sheet, compost, and weekly gardening missions. The program received a positive response, with nearly 100 registrations in just a few days.
Once public events resume, Cook said she’d like to offer workshops for kids and adults, bringing in experts on gardening, composting and pollinators. She also noted that volunteers have continued to help care for the grounds, including the new gardens.
“This gardening project has been a saving grace, as we are able to focus on something positive,” Cook said. “Throughout the pandemic, we have communicated that our grounds are always open. I think people are enjoying our grounds and very appreciative of having somewhere to go, to pray and to find peace. The gardening has added to that — more people are coming out because of that, and I think it brings happiness to people.”