By Warren McPherson, M.Ed.
Athens Montessori School grew from one to seven buildings over a period of twenty years. As an avid organic gardener and former homesteader it was always our dream to provide rich gardens and rich botanical landscapes for our school. Our first gardens were launched when a self taught British gardener and inventor, Michael Dillon, taught me to mix five or six shovels full of crush-and-run gravel with one shovel full of cement and mix into a stiff batch of mortar to be shaped easily with trowels or a piece of 2×4’s for garden forms. I used this mix to shape three circles about 12 feet in diameter with paths down the middle dividing each circle into four quadrants which the children could reach into from the paths and perimeter. I added compost to the stiff Georgia red clay soil. The numerous area farms and chicken houses provided abundant aged manure for the project.
From my own garden experience I already knew that the key to Georgia gardening was well prepared soil and early planting to beat the bugs and summer droughts.
Having moved from Northern Wisconsin before coming to Georgia, I got planting fever the first of March when the warm weather came. My neighbors chuckled when I planted my garden so early since they fully anticipated a cold snap before they planted in late April. By the time a cold snap hit in early April, my plants were so well established that the cold barely nipped the tips of the tomato leaves and I was harvesting everything, including pumpkins and corn, in June. Since then I have learned that March weather is not always so hospitable but I still plant every crop at the earliest possible date so that my family can harvest many crops in May and June.
Your local agricultural extension agent will have a calendar of recommended planting dates. I always plant hardy crops beginning in February or early March, such as, potatoes, turnips, cabbage family, broccoli, radishes and greens. When the warm weather holds, I experiment with a limited number of vines and warmer weather crops knowing I can reseed them or cover them in the event of a late cold snap. The other important advantage of early planting is it affords the children a harvest before the end of school.
Although the cabbage family plants do not fare well in Georgia’s summers they animate our school gardens all through the fall and spring seasons (collards are particularly hardy). As I write this on January 13th, I am already preparing my seed orders online. Early purchases often save you up to 50% on seeds and allow you to grow your own plant starts indoors for broccoli, cabbage, tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants. You may also want to order potatoes starts which can even be grown in a tire filled with soil.
Experiment freely with varieties or vegetables. For example, you may start Dutch cabbage, red cabbage or Savoy cabbage (my favorite, hot or cold in a salad). Tomatoes come in a wide variety of shapes and flavors. Be sure to plant a variety and include cherry tomatoes for the children to sample. There is a whole catalogue of just tomato seed varieties. You can find heart shaped, pear shaped and strawberry shaped tomatoes. Also you may grow tomatoes in white, orange, yellow, green or striped varieties. I usually purchase some decorative Kale to further beautify the early and late gardens along with a border or frame of pansies.
Even salad greens can be varied and decorative as well as hardy. I particularly recommend Bibb lettuce, red oak leaf lettuce, mesculun mix and arugula. Mesculun mix provides a rich assortment of leaf shapes for your leaf studies as well as color. Arugula adds spicy flavor to salads.
Your herb garden can serve as a tasting and olfactory adventure. Herbs are hardy and grow like weeds. Our rosemary grows so large it serves as part of our landscaping and wafts visitors down our office path on a sweet cloud of fragrance. Mint comes in a variety of flavors and fragrances including lemon mint and chocolate mint. (Caution: plant mint strategically as it is invasive and has an intractable root system).
By having more than one plot you can establish theme gardens such as herbs, vines, salad, beans, cabbage family, pizza, and Native American gardens. A fun garden could include “peek-a-boo” pumpkins (miniature white), birdhouse gourds, and foot-long pole beans.
For ease of planting, weeding and harvesting, use raised beds with wooden or the concrete forms I mentioned at the beginning.
For detailed plans and instructions you may want to go to squarefootgardening.com.
There are many varieties or gardening methods and styles which I will describe in a later article. They include French Intensive gardening, biodynamic farming, tower gardening, hydroponics, and Genesa circle gardening.
Another way to tie your gardening activity to curriculum is to purchase a moon phase calendar and plant your crops according to the phases of the moon. Other activities are worm farming, composting and mulching.
Most important of all, be sure that the spot you choose for your garden receives adequate sunlight during the growing season.
Be sure to ritualize your planting and harvest occasions with a song, dance or feast (soup with vegetables or vegetables with dip). Whether planting in cups to take home, planters for the classroom or directly into the garden plot, my favorite pentatontic planting song is “Mother Earth”:
Mother Earth, Mother Earth
Take our seed and give it birth.
Father Sun, gleam and glow
Till the roots begin to grow.
Sister Rain, Sister Rain
Shed thy tears to swell the grain.
Brother Wind, breathe and blow
Till the spouts begin to grow.
Earth and Sun, Wind and Rain,
Turn to gold thy living grain.
The importance of living close to and working the land cannot be emphasized enough. Since children are so often over scheduled and over exposed to electronic stimulus, it is particularly important for children today to experience the rhythms, cycles, and sensory richness of the botanical world.