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Starting a school garden

Published February 8, 2012
"Every spring I receive a number of requests from schools wanting to start a school garden," said University of Illinois Extension horticulture educator Ron Wolford. "Planning a school garden can be a lot of fun and a lot of work. It is a great place for both teachers and students to learn by doing."

Wolford offered the following pointers:

Location

Choose a site with at least six to eight hours of sun; most flowers and vegetables need full sun for best growth. Pick a site with easy access to water, and have your school janitor check outside faucets to make sure they are working. Once you have chosen a site, have the soil tested.

"The foundation of your garden is your soil," he said. "Loose, fertile, well- drained soil will make your gardening experience a good one. A basic soil test will tell you if you need to improve the nutrient levels of your soil. Soil tests will run $15-$20. If your garden site is in an urban area, you should also have your soil tested for lead and heavy metals."

If your school does not have any green space, you can ask your local city officials for permission to garden on a nearby vacant lot. Finding water can be a problem for a vacant lot garden. Many towns will allow you to access a nearby fire hydrant for water; check with your local fire department.

Size

"Start small and keep it simple! I can't emphasize this point enough," Wolford said. "Teachers are busy. I have seen many school gardens fail because teachers try to do too much the first year. Build on your success. The best gardens offer each student or class their own space, giving them a sense of ownership."

Design

Many schools have limited space for a school garden, or the suitable site is covered with concrete. Raised beds are a possibility; other options include containers, earthboxes, and smart pots.

"Earthboxes are self-contained plastic growing units with a three-gallon reservoir of water beneath the soil," Wolford explained. "The earthbox growing area is covered with black plastic that eliminates weeding and warms the soil in early spring, giving your plants a fast start. Watering is easy through a tube that goes through the soil to the water reservoir."

"Smart Pots are soft-sided, fabric containers that have the rigidity to hold their shape. They come in a variety of sizes, from 1 gallon to 400 gallons. You can get them with or without handles. Both the earthboxes and the smart pots can be placed on concrete."

Garden work schedule

Gardens need care, sometimes every day. Make sure the students, not the school janitor, maintain the garden. If your school is on a nine-month schedule, start planting in April to ensure some harvest before the school year ends.

"If you plan to continue the garden throughout the summer, come up with a plan to continue care," Wolford said. "This could be some summer school students or student and parent volunteers."

Don't get overwhelmed with things to do in the garden. Make sure you know what you are going to do each day and the time required for each garden visit. Take breaks between activities. Visit your garden at least two or three times a week to care for your plants. For gardening advice, contact your local University of Illinois Extension office, many of which have Master Gardeners available to provide assistance.

What to grow

Grow vegetables and flowers that the students like and that are easy to grow. Start with plants that mature quickly such as lettuce, radishes, sunflowers, marigold, zinnias, spinach, bush beans, and zucchini. If your school has no outdoor space, green onions, radishes, lettuce, and herbs can be grown in a sunny window in plastic pots or heavy- duty Ziploc quart or gallon freezer bags. Eat the food you grow. Have a salad party or prepare a recipe using your vegetables.

Vandalism

It can be very discouraging to see your ripe fruit and vegetables disappear overnight. Here are some tips to help reduce vandalism:

- Reserve garden space in the school garden for neighbors who live near the school.

- Hold an "Open House" and invite the neighbors to see what you are growing.

- Visit your garden as often as possible. Recruit parents and students to work on Saturdays in the garden.

- Plant extra vegetables and flowers for unwelcome visitors.

- Ask neighbors and local police to keep an eye on the garden.

- Plan a gathering space in the garden that can be used for gardening activities such as work days or a harvest festival.

- Repair damage as quickly as possible.

Wolford recommended a number of resources for more information.

Books

How to Grow a School Garden: A Complete Guide for Teachers and Parents, San Francisco, Green Schoolyard Alliance.

Roots, Shoots, Buckets & Boots. Sharon Lovejoy, Workman Publishing, N.Y. The Victory Garden Kids' Book. Marjorie Waters, the Globe Pequot Press, Old Saybrook, Conn.

Schoolyard Mosaics: Designing Gardens and Habitats. National Gardening Association.

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