Gardens are essential in teaching children how healthy food is grown and produced. Gardening can be incorporated into math, science, social studies and nutrition curriculums, in a way that is much more real and engaging.
Before last year, I didn’t have much experience with gardening other than with herb pots in my kitchen and some potted flowers in my yard. So, the thought of starting a garden big enough for my kids entire elementary school was daunting, to say the least. But with some careful thought and help from other parents, friends and local businesses I was able to create a beautiful and successful organic vegetable garden that completely exceeded my expectations (and most likely the school’s as well)!
I wanted to share what I’ve learned over the past year; my experiences, challenges and how I managed to make it this far. Hopefully, it will inspire others to get out there and plant a garden in their hometown or school!
Create Your Game Plan
It’s never to early to begin planning for a spring garden. Winter is the perfect time to gather information such as the location you will place the garden and ideas for possible funding, which you will eventually want to present to your school administrative staff and PTA. It’s the perfect time to apply for grants if you need financial assistance. If your school has a Wellness Committee (more about that soon), the garden program you create can fall within it’s realm. As a parent, I became the garden coordinator, but anyone who is willing can assume this role including school nurses and teachers.
You want to gather support for you garden from administrators, teachers, school nurses, students, parents and local farmers. In order for the garden to be successful, it has to be a team effort. I found it helpful to have a specific teacher serve as the liaison between myself and other school staff, for purposes of conveying information, providing resources and scheduling garden related events with the children. Scheduled meetings to discuss your plans are helpful so that everyone is communicating their concerns and ideas together.
When local farmers and businesses heard about my idea to start a school garden, many were willing to their donate time, expertise and resources to help us build it. In fact, a local landscaper and farmer donated his time and labor and built us the fencing that surrounds our garden and most of the supplies we needed to get us started. He serves as a valuable resource when we have questions such as with fertilization and pest or disease control.
Build A Garden
You will need to determine the location of your garden and that will depend on factors such as exposure to available sunlight and space. Deer and groundhogs were a major concern for us which is why fencing in our garden was a must. You will also want to consider what types of vegetables, herbs etc… you may want to plant in your garden depending on what season you will begin planting. Last spring we decided on carrots, radishes, peas, zucchini, cabbage and lettuces. What you plant will depend on how large your garden is and when you plan to harvest. We planted at the end of April (due to an exceptionally cold spring), which was cutting it really close to have any chance of harvesting and tasting by the end of the school year.
We did have some mishaps, which were to be expected. For example, we had crowded areas of radishes and carrots where children dumped piles of seeds together and they didn’t grow very well. The carrots weren’t ready to harvest by the end of the school year (they take a loooonng time). At the end of the summer we planted sugar pumpkins and gourds, which did well up until the very end when the vines succumbed to powdery mildew, most likely from overcrowding. But, we did grow beautiful boston, romaine and bibb lettuces that were probably some of the tastiest lettuces I’ve ever had! We had enough to throw garden parties for the kindergarten classes and we made bags of lettuces for some of the fourth grade classes who used the garden to study data collection and measurement. Third graders planted beautiful orange and yellow marigolds that we were told help ward off deer and rabbits.
There is no question this will continue to be a learning process. One thing is for sure, the children LOVE going out to experience the garden. Teachers have approached me many times, telling me how students’ curiostiy and willingness to learn come alive when they are in the garden, in a way that is much different than with a book in the classroom. I’ve also heard many stories about children who never would have eaten the vegetables we grew this spring and are now curious about them and willing to try them at home!
Gardening has opened up so many opportunities for parents and teachers to discuss healthy eating. Because we strategically placed our garden near the playground entrance, children have to pass it when they go out for recess. The garden serves as a visual reminder to the students and our community about the importance of real food and healthy habits… and that’s good enough for me to call it a success!