Just as the mighty oak starts with a seedling...
5 Steps to Starting a School Garden
Many schools have found ways to cultivate opportunities for hands-on science, history and language arts in their outdoor classrooms. Does your school currently have a school garden or are you looking to create a learning garden? As an involved parent at Hawthorne School District, I started out by discussing the idea with other parents and staff and then I reached out to school administration for approval. I remember when I received the green light from the principal at my first School site to start working in their garden. Right after my feelings of excitement and elation came the realization of the grand tasks that lay ahead. With so many priorities, what should come first? So this is for you, the person who wants to start a school garden program but doesn't know where to begin.
Step 1: Location, Location, Location
Refurbishing pallets into garden beds can be a low-cost way to upcycle materials. There are many configurations for different spaces and uses. Schools with existing planters can convert them to tasting gardens which allow students to taste different crops but will not produce enough yield to use in school meals. Many planters have irrigation which is a huge benefit. Both will need new organic soil. You can have parent volunteers from parent organizations write letters to hardware and garden stores requesting donations using your school's tax ID.
Step 2: Plants need H2O to grow
Creating a watering schedule is vital. In most tasks and especially gardening, “many hands make light work”, and reaping the most from this new outdoor classroom can be achieved through the support of various volunteers. To ensure the best outcome for school gardens identify what watering schedule would work best for your site. Creating a watering schedule where newly planted seeds and seedlings are watered Monday, Wednesday, and Friday until established, then Monday and Friday would be great! Many crops require less watering after about 3-4 weeks. It is recommended you water beds even if empty to prevent soil from blowing away. Planting top covers to be tilled back into the soil is also recommended in off seasons (mustard greens and beans are easy nutrient rich top covers) Schools can create a teacher schedule where classes water the garden. Depending on the number of classes participating it could be as little as once a month and as often as once a week. Parent volunteers and after-school programs are often happy to get involved.
Step 3: What to grow?
The USDA has a convenient GIS map for plant hardiness. You can decide what plants work best for your region. I enjoying working with native plants and creating pollinator gardens. Pollinator gardens are flower patches which attract butterflies, moths and bees, and are incredibly beneficial to ensuring your gardens success. I also try to allow at least one of each plant to go to seed. This means once the plant is done growing you save the seeds to be reused for next year instead of discarding them. Schools can create seed libraries from seeds and students can watch the full cycle of plants.
Step 4: Soups on!
With a solid watering schedule, the garden is thriving. And before you know it, it is time to harvest! What should be done with the delightful morsels grown? Some schools share the bounty with students and teachers who work in the garden. I enjoy creating a simple taste test at our schools. Participating students harvest our seasonal goods. As a parent volunteer, I prepare a simple taste test on site. We have had raw radish “chips” with hummus, mandarin beet salad, veggie soup, guacamole with raw carrot “chips” and other tasty bites. I focus on keeping recipes simple with only a few ingredients that way students can enjoy the real flavor of the crop. We utilize the harvest and supplement from the store where needed. We encourage everyone to try but never force students. Not all the students love every taste test but exposure is important. We discuss that everyone has preferences and that fruits and vegetables are incredibly versatile and some people prefer them prepared in a different way. If you have the chance try preparing the fruit or vegetable in multiple forms, some hot, some cold. For example, you can slice tomatoes for a salad and roast them to use in a soup or sauce. Be sure to follow your local county health department regulations. Try coordinating with your school's cafeteria to ensure you are preparing foods in an approved facility and that you are not cooking or preparing foods at home that are served to students.
Step 5: Strengthening learning
Learning curriculums that incorporate growing and harvesting produce are a fun way to engage students in learning. Students can discuss the depth at which seeds are planted and inches between seeds, the number of days it takes to germinate and use the fruit or vegetable to incorporate in math lessons. You can estimate circumference, weight, and height of pumpkins grown in the fall. We have taught lessons about the Three Sisters, a Native American way of planting. We introduce scientific names of plants, nutrients, and benefits of the species grown in the garden. All these discussions enrich the lessons learned in class in a hands-on way. I highly recommend LearnAboutAg.org for great resources, many are free and delivered to schools. In addition to LearnAboutAg.org check out Champions for Change resources, many are both English and Spanish. Another great resource is Action for Healthy Kids who have wonderful resources like the Learning connection and grant opportunities! Good luck and see you in the garden!