WEST DES MOINES, Iowa — For nearly 10 years, Valley High School’s greenhouse sat unused — its plants left to rot after its cooling system broke down and sat in need of repairs.
Where a small plat of land full of weeds and dried dirt once sat just outside the abandoned building now blooms an array of colors — unseen until just five months ago.
Underneath the bursting greenery of tomatoes, lettuce, peppers and basil plants, engrained in 10 tons of soil that Nathan Steimel’s hands toiled over for months, is more than a year’s worth of work toward the rising senior’s legacy.
That work received a major boost recently, when Valley High School received $5,000 from the Bayer Fund, an organization focused on food, nutrition and STEM education, thanks to Steimel’s application to win funds to put toward a new cooling system.
The Des Moines Register reports Steimel unknowingly began his mission to resurrect the greenhouse his sophomore year. He was brainstorming ideas for an honors project and wanted to conduct studies on plants and growth in the high school’s greenhouse, not knowing that it had fallen into disrepair.
When associate principal Joshua Griffith told him as much, Steimel left his office with his head down, “a little bit defeated,” Griffith said. But not for long.
“A couple days later, he came back in and he’s, like, ‘So, I’ve got a different idea: What if I got the greenhouse up and going again?’” Griffith remembers. “And we haven’t looked back since.”
Steimel began searching for ways to raise money for a new passive cooling system, which aids in the space’s ventilation, needed for plants to survive in the greenhouse — and that was expected to cost around $4,000.
By late spring, Steimel had applied for more than 20 grants and had heard back from one company, Stine Seed in Adel, which donated $500 toward the effort. The work was further complicated by the pandemic, which had shuttered major businesses and redirected surplus funds toward medical efforts.
After a pep talk from Griffith, the then-junior continued to apply for grants in the fall, eventually winning $4,500 from Corteva Agriscience, the majority of which went toward the cooling system that was installed in March.
Remaining funds were used to purchase tools, such as hoses and pots, to plant seeds. Steimel and the Greenhouse Club he helped launch sold tomato, pepper, lettuce and spinach plants to raise money for additional equipment and seeds through a fundraiser in May.
“Whatever isn’t sold comes out here, and then this sustains a food pantry or the community,” Griffith said.
Steimel has donated more than 200 tomato plants, as well as spinach and pepper plants, to community gardens. Once vegetables are ready to be harvested, Steimel and the Greenhouse Club donations them to the Urbandale Food Pantry.
Though Steimel filled out all the grants to put the greenhouse back in order himself — with a little proofreading help from Griffith — he wasn’t working alone for long. He quickly involved the Greenhouse Club and, after a suggestion from a teacher, began collaborating with special education students to work together in the garden.
With those students in mind, Steimel had the idea to install a special water trough-like garden that is accessible for students in wheelchairs. He also ensured a table in the greenhouse was adjusted at a comfortable height for all students.
“It’s awesome being here and knowing that I’m donating all this food to people in the community that need it,” he said. “It’s awesome to know that I’m providing an opportunity for special education students and Valley students to be able to grow plants and have this opportunity to come here and harvest food.”
His entire life, Steimel’s father has had two raised garden beds in his family’s yard just like those outside the Valley greenhouse. Steimel said he picked up his passion in gardening from his father and his penchant for leadership from his experiences as an Eagle Scout.
Steimel said he knows how it feels to be able to help his community through his service with the Boy Scouts, and wants to extend that feeling to others.
“I think this project has a lot of opportunity to expand,” he said. “I really want to get other students involved.”
While he’s still the leader of the Greenhouse Club, Steimel celebrates each victory that comes with building a project from scratch. When he was notified he’d received the grant from the Bayer Fund, he said he excused himself from Spanish class and ran to share the news with Griffith.
“I could tell (Griffith) was happy, and I was definitely happy — I was doing dances in the middle of the cafeteria,” he said.
Steimel has ideas for the future, like a mural on the garden water trough, but first, he’s focused on researching cooling systems.
The Bayer Fund grant will be used to install a more extensive cooling system, which will be able to lower the temperature in the greenhouse by 10-15 degrees — an essential system when the greenhouse can heat up by the same amount compared to outside temperatures.
From the beginning, Griffith says he was impressed with Steimel. The rising senior is now the only student with keys to a school building — the greenhouse.
“I couldn’t believe it,” Griffith said. “I got this sophomore in here that saw a problem but didn’t look at it as an obstacle he couldn’t overcome.
“He did what was needed to make it happen.”
Steimel’s work on the greenhouse made him one of 15 Iowa High School juniors to receive a Herbert Hoover Uncommon Student Award, which gives $1,500 to students who “propose and then accomplish a project of their own choosing and design,” according to the foundation’s website.
Steimel will give a presentation on his project this fall, which will determine whether he receives an additional $10,000.