Last week, I wrote about the origins of my school’s vegetable garden and discussed the rationale for starting a school garden. Now you may be considering how you can turn your own bit of earth into a living, learning laboratory for your students. As someone who is all thumbs (and none of them green), I assure you that a garden can be an easy and rewarding experience for both you and your students! Read on for a simple plan to start your own garden, as well as a list of resources and tips for school gardens.
We discuss a flowering broccoli plant as a class. Our garden really is an extension of our classroom!
Are you tempted to start a garden at your school this year? A garden can be as simple as some plant pots, tomato baskets, or other containers on a sunny windowsill, or grow bags in a corner of your school yard. Check out the list of resources below for suggestions and tips on planning a garden, but don’t get overwhelmed by the wealth of information out there. You can start small, as I did, with a garden just for your class or grade.
All you really need is a sunny spot, some safe, clean soil, and a couple of packets of seeds. Request seed catalogs from several seed companies and let your students browse the catalogs to plan your garden. There are so many curriculum connections in math, reading, and writing as your students plan the seed purchases.
Seedlings will help your plants get off to a faster start, but they really aren’t necessary. You can also start your plants from seed in little pots in your classroom now, and then transplant the seedlings into your garden when the soil warms up in a month or two. (The University of Missouri Extension website provides detailed directions for starting to grow your seeds indoors in peat pots.)
A chain-link fence became a trellis for our cucumber plants. It is exciting to adapt your garden to the limitations of your school environment, and students love the challenge of reimagining their environment.
I’d never gardened before starting with my students, but we simply approached the project as a big experiment. We were pleasantly surprised when some of our plants actually grew and even provided vegetables. You’ll learn from your mistakes, and you can apply what you learn to your gardening experience next year.
Last spring, my class decided to plant twelve tomato seedlings in one 4- by 4-foot raised bed. Two months later, when the tomato plants towered over my students in a riotous tangle of vines, we realized that our plant bed was absurdly overcrowded! My students learned a lot about competition for limited resources and trial-and-error design. Next year, we’ll be sure to plant no more than four tomato plants in a bed. It’s OK if you make mistakes and some (or a lot) of your planting plans flop — this is part of the process!
We never imagined that our teeny tomato seedlings would grow into such a wild tomato jungle!
A lot of the school garden guides on the Internet emphasize the importance of planning your garden carefully to make sure that it is manageable and sustainable. They suggest starting a planning committee months before planting season, drawing careful garden plans, holding lavish fundraising events, and writing extensive plans for your garden.
While I understand the value of careful planning, I want to tell you that your garden does NOT need to be such a carefully planned endeavor. (I honestly don’t think I’d ever have started gardening with my students if I had read all of the guides prior to beginning — it’s really overwhelming!) Throw caution to the wind, grab some shovels (don’t worry about garden gloves), and let your students start digging in the dirt. You’ll be amazed at how your garden grows, and if you start fairly small, you really can’t go wrong.
What are your students interested in planting this year? Fruits and vegetables are an obvious choice since children love to taste what they’ve grown, but it is important to test your soil for contaminants prior to growing anything your students will eat. (If you are using pots or grow bags, this is not an issue.) A decorative garden with flowers and other interesting plants can be a meaningful project, adding beauty to your community and helping your students feel pride in their school.
Consider your curriculum. A “three sisters garden” will complement a unit about Native Americans, and a butterfly garden will work well with a unit on insects. When you involve your students in the planning of the garden, they will learn about climate zones, seasonality, companion planting, and aesthetics. If you are going to share the garden project with other classes, you can divide up the work based on your classes' interests and curriculum.
Once you get started, you’ll be amazed at how many curriculum connections and lesson ideas you’ll find. It all starts with planting some seeds: nature’s magic will take care of the rest, so just start planting!
Students are so proud of vegetables they grow themselves.
It’s cool to be square . . . when it comes to gardening. Last year we tried “square foot gardening” with our students, and it was very successful. To set up our square foot garden, we divided up each of our planting beds into square foot grids, and then we planted each square foot with a set number of vegetables. We had our students divide up the beds using twine to make the grid lines, a less permanent but quick and easy solution.
Students observe newly planted seedlings in our square foot garden raised bed.
Square foot gardening is a planting technique developed by a civil engineer, Mel Bartholomew, in the 1970s. Mel describes his technique as "a system of laying out, planting, and maintaining a productive, attractive garden in any amount of space. The garden is based on a grid of 1- by 1-foot squares, with single seeds or plants placed in carefully determined spacings." Mel explains that "The square foot system lets you make the most of your garden space to conserve the amount of water, soil conditioners, and labor needed to produce a maximum amount of food in that space.” To learn more about square foot gardening, visit his official square foot gardening website.
When working with children, I found square foot gardening particularly helpful in organizing where the children would plant their seeds. We used graph paper to make maps of each of our raised beds, and we planned what to plant in each square foot with the students. The students would refer to their maps to figure out where to plant their seeds, tend the garden, or harvest the vegetables. For example, I might tell a student to go weed the beets in squares A1 through B4, and the student would know exactly where to go.
A student helps to plan our garden using a square foot grid map on chart paper.
Of course, if this sounds overwhelming to you, stick with container plantings this year. We’ve planted small blueberry bushes, tomatoes, and potatoes in large pots and garden bags, and we’ve been successful with all of them.
We used grow bags for our potato plants. Potatoes are so easy to grow, and we had a fabulous yield!
Stay tuned for more blog posts this spring as I share how we get our garden up and running for another year of growth and exploration. I'll be posting updates about our garden via Twitter as well: follow me @AlyciaZimmerman. If you have questions about starting a garden at your school, use the comments section below. I’d also love to hear about your gardening successes!