By Warren McPherson, M.Ed.
It’s important for all children to understand the care of plants and stewardship of the earth, the source of their food, and the abundance possible through cooperation with nature.
There is no excuse for not having a school garden. Gardens come in all shapes, sizes and configurations. There are many different methods for raising vegetables no matter how limited your space. There are raised bed gardens, French intensive gardens (lots of plants in a small space), Genesa circle gardens, Square-foot gardens, shade gardens, tower gardens. There are also many themes for gardens; herb gardens, scent gardens, annual, perennial, pizza and Native American gardens. In tight narrow spaces you can grow just one crop such as tomatoes, beans or sunflowers. You can grow potatoes or sweet potatoes in a tire!
With the exception of a flower shade garden, the main ingredients are adequate sunlight and water, and well prepared soil. Some soils, particularly near buildings, is backfill which means it was raised from deep underground and placed on top. Sometimes this hard clay or primitive soil is not worth the effort of amending and your time is better spent digging a pit and starting with new soil and compost or building soil in a raised bed with sides.
Your garden soil should have a fine, loose feel so that air and water can reach the roots. Once I planted in some Georgia red clay soil that formed hard nodules or clumps around the roots that could not be penetrated by water except with the aid of a surfactant. When you water, it is more important to water deeply than to water frequently. This means you must monitor the depth of the watering when you have children participate in the effort. Frequent shallow watering can actually cause the roots to turn upwards toward the surface rather than going deeper into the soil to acquire their nutrients.
The other critical factor is timing of the planting. School gardens are particularly time sensitive since you want the harvest to come in before the children leave for summer or before the frost in winter. Start plants indoors and plant them outside at the earliest possible time.
Many teachers and parents complain that they do not ‘have a green thumb.’ My personal belief and experience is that plants are prolific when provided with the basics of water, sunlight and well aerated soil with compost. Further I believe that teachers and homes should have so many plants growing inside and out that one almost feels a sense of relief when one dies and there is one less to care for. Many people gather the impression that they are a jinx to plants because they purchase inexpensive plants at a chain store and do not realize that the plant is in shock or debilitated even though it doesn’t show when they pick it out. Besides there are always avid gardeners in every school who can help you get started. I find that people who enjoy gardens and plants usually are more than happy to share their expertise with you and even get you started with cullings from their gardens or extras from their vegetable starts.
There are excellent resources on the internet for gardening with kids. Three of the clearest and most specific are: www.squarefootgardening.org; www.communitygarden.org: and www.schoolgardenwizard.org
In later articles I will introduce more information about each kind of garden, garden clubs, networking for gardens and additional resources.