Category Archives: Children

Sustainable Vegetable Gardens: Deciding What to Plant

SC-thumbSo 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.

Managing School Vegetable Gardens: Who Gardens?

SC-thumbSchool 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.


Sustainable Gardening at School

SC-thumbThe thrill of a sustainable vegetable garden at school is connecting children directly to the food they eat. As I write this, I’m mindful of the images of devastation from Typhoon Haiyan as it created havoc in the Philippines. We are in the midst of global climate change, and storms like this are becoming more and more common. A school vegetable garden can’t solve everything, but it can re-orient our children and ourselves to growing local, healthy food. This choice can reduce our carbon footprint.

There are three sustainable vegetable gardens in my life: House at Pooh Corner, The Montessori School, and our home garden. Each of these gardens includes at least one compost bin that provides nutrients for the growing flowers and vegetables. As I strive to lead the gardens at the two schools, I benefit from the garden expertise of my husband Phil. Among other things, Phil starts many of the vegetables that are planted at school.

School gardens teach the connection between growing food and our plate. Children experience the vegetables in their natural environment before they get washed, cut and prepared. Students can explore the whole process: seed, planting, growing, harvesting and eating. A bonus is collecting seeds this year to plant next year.

At House at Pooh Corner, a preschool, we focus on cherry tomatoes, radishes, green beans and lettuce. These are all vegetables that can be picked and eaten right away. You don’t even need to wash them (well, do wash the radishes). So the children’s experience is hand to mouth. Pick the lettuce, taste it. You’d be surprised at what a picky eater will try if they get to pick the vegetable from the plant. When there is abundance, make a salad or steam cook the green beans.

At The Montessori School, in addition to common vegetables, we also have an herb garden, and have had success with strawberries, potatoes, zucchini, zinnia flowers and peppers.


In both schools, the children help with the compost bin. Children collect food waste from their own snacks or lunches, and add the food to the compost bin with a layer of greens (yard waste) and browns (dried leaves or shredded paper). Months later, the children help to sift the nutritious soil, putting large pieces of compost back in the bin, and adding the soft, sifted soil to the vegetable garden.

One of the joys of gardening is helping to figure out how to use the harvested food. Some uses are obvious: salad or eating raw green beans, radishes, tomatoes and peppers. Other uses educate and stretch children’s knowledge. Zucchini can be used in a recipe right away, or it can be shredded and frozen for making zucchini bread in the winter. This year at The Montessori School, we harvested an abundance of potatoes that were made into mashed potatoes and roasted potatoes.

The point of a sustainable garden is to connect children to the food that they eat. Planting, growing, harvesting, and eating create joy and wonder for a growing child. They won’t forget their experiences in the garden.