So you have, or want to start, a School Sustainable Vegetable Garden. How do you choose what to plant?
Well, what do you dream of planting? Tomatoes, corn, squash, green beans, and carrots? You and your students will learn from every experiment. But there are some plants that work better than others given the growing seasons, limited adult help, and the restrictions of a typical school year ending in June and beginning in September.
First, think about what your goal is for involving the children. One goal is to directly plant, pick, and eat. In the spring, between the start of warm weather and the end of the school year (Pennsylvania), you can successfully grow lettuce, spinach, radishes, and similar quickly growing, cool weather vegetables. Children are intrigued and engaged in picking and directly tasting lettuce, and excited about finding the biggest radish that can be pulled out of the ground. Wash, slice, and share it within the classroom. If, in addition, you can plant in the spring and harvest in the fall, your options greatly increase (see below).
This spring harvest of quickly growing veggies can also be successful in the fall. If you plant quickly growing cold weather vegetables the first or second week of school, you can comfortably harvest before it gets too cold. With a bit of care (a tarp or bed of straw over the vegetables during a cold snap), you can harvest into November. Water, thin plants, and weed your garden as necessary.
With more adult effort, peas or green beans can reliably be planted by Saint Patty’s Day and harvested before the end of school. This creates two additional challenges: wildlife and tall plant growth. Birds, rabbits, and other animals LOVE to eat these seeds or young plants, so, protect your vegetables by using deer mesh or some other animal barrier. To give height for plants to grow, create a simple stretch of strings, purchase a structure such as a trellis, or plant by a fence.
If you have summertime adult assistance and can plan ahead for the second year, plant in the spring for a fall harvest. With minimal help of one hour a week (watering, harvesting, weeding, etc.), you can grow tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, red beets, Swiss chard, zucchini, and carrots. When you start school in the fall, you may have a bunch of weeds, but hardy plants will survive, and might “surprise” students as they weed.
Some seemingly-ideal plants don’t work well in a school garden. Corn is highly attractive to raccoons and is likely not to survive. Pumpkins need a tremendous amount of space.
Opportunities abound for curricular connections with a garden. Consider teaching “the parts of a plant” by growing different edible parts: lettuces are leaves. Peas are seeds. Radishes are roots. Cherry tomatoes for a fall crop are also excellent to “pick and eat.”
Whatever you decide, start a School Sustainable Vegetable Garden this year. Dream of the garden you want, experiment with the seeds and space that you have, and nurture adult help that supports this excellent educational opportunity for your students.
School vegetable gardens provide spectacular opportunity for children to explore nature. Nothing is more engaging than a worm crawling through the soil or a praying mantis clinging to a bean plant. Real time explorations reinforce where our food comes from, as well as classroom knowledge on soil, plants, animals, weather and seasons. The educational benefits are hands-on and myriad.
But there’s a balance that has to be established with a school garden. One teacher and a rotation of classes aren’t enough to maintain a successful vegetable garden. How much of the work is completed by the teacher and the students, and how much of the work is completed by other adults? Typically the teacher provides all the resources for the lesson, but with a garden, this model doesn’t work.
There are two schools where I’m supporting sustainable vegetable gardens. The preschool garden at House at Pooh Corner is small enough that an extra hour of work once a week within the context of my morning at the school is sufficient to manage the growing area. Teachers take charge of extra watering and harvesting during the week, and occasionally another adult stakes the tomatoes and sunflowers, or puts a new fence around the garden.
At The Montessori School, the eight 4 x 4 square gardens, along with two 8 x 3 toddler gardens, are more than one teacher with rotating classes can manage. For the last couple of years, we have been experimenting with what works. I do most of the gardening with the students during the year. Additional adults help with summer gardening and with heavier work, such as building the fence or replacing the wood of the garden plots.
As the garden thrives and is used more directly within the classroom curricula, we concurrently need to strengthen adult help. There’s opportunity for school families to participate, benefiting the families as the school garden is supported. When families get involved, community connections are increased, parent and child experiences are nurtured, parent gardening skills are strengthened, community knowledge of growing local food increases, and the garden is available for classroom use.
Two enriching opportunities for families are an after school garden club, and summer family gardening. This fall parents and students gardened together. We had fun together, and with this weekly extra hour of help, gardening needs were met. We harvested herbs, tomatoes, radishes, lettuce, and we sifted school compost for nutritional use in the garden. Children were thrilled finding sow bugs, meal worms, grubs and spiders. As we continue to experiment with families gardening this coming spring, I hope this will lead to parents seeing the enjoyment and benefit of taking a week to water, weed and harvest in the summer.
School communities embracing a school sustainable vegetable garden is a win/win/win/win opportunity: children are exploring outside; parents are nurturing their connection with their child and their community while also being outside in a garden; during the summer, families get to take home produce they helped grow and the garden is supported, ready for fall harvest by the children in the new school year.