Planting a new garden is exciting. Which crops to raise is determined by climate, garden conditions, and budget. It is also important to consider the time of harvest because it is ideal to reap rewards while children are in school rather than when they are away on summer vacation. See Starting a School Garden for tips on the first steps.
Organizing Space in the Garden
Once a sunny space has been reserved and plans made for its preparation, plans for crop selection can be made. The state university extension is a public source to support agriculture and gardening and can recommend crops for the climate, provide planting guidance, or provide a master gardener to work with the school.*
The beds in a school garden can be organized by class, by theme, or by crop. Some examples of theme gardens: edible flower garden, herb garden, salad garden, sensory garden, or pizza garden. It is helpful to map out the garden and publicize the plan so all participants can anticipate.
Establishing a plan also makes it easier to envision harvests, celebrations, or uses for the crops raised. The garden will require ongoing enthusiasm and energy, so school or community events are integral.
When to Plant the Garden
After beds are planned, plantings need to be scheduled (allowing some flexibility in case of unforeseen weather conditions). Use this school planting guide or the information found on seed packets to determine which plants are realistic for spring or fall harvest.
When selecting crops, consider the summer months – maintenance is challenging and school will not be in session. Plan to harvest as many crops as possible while the children are there to participate. Look at listings of cool season and warm season crops to find items for spring harvest (if possible in the school’s plant hardiness zone) and fall harvest. It may even be possible to do a fall planting if the growing season is long enough.
Spring Harvest or Fall Harvest for the School Garden
Quick gratification achieved through spring harvests is a great boon. In order to harvest before school gets out, consider starting seeds inside in late winter or plant cool season crops that mature quickly. Salad fixings such as leafy greens, scallions, snap peas, or radishes are possibilities.
A bed of strawberries may bear some fruit before summer vacation. Early-blooming flowers are their own reward in May and June. People who understand the bounty of the garden are more likely to carry through on summer maintenance so spring harvest is a wise public relations move.
It is also lovely to return to school in the fall when there are crops ready to be harvested. These plants have longer growing times to reach maturity, and will require maintenance over the summer months. If some are planted in May or June, there will be crops ready when school is back in session: popcorn, shelling bean (dry beans), sunflowers, winter squash or pumpkins, peppers, eggplant, melons, potatoes, or tomatoes.
Beyond Vegetables for School Gardens
Including flowers brings in some reluctant gardeners who profess not to care about vegetables, and makes the garden a pleasant place to work. Including edible flowers is a novelty to some gardeners. Planting flowers at borders or between beds adds color and cheer. Perennial flowers add form and substance to an edible garden in the off-season, and provide continuity from one growing season to the next.
The aroma of fresh herbs is stimulating, and herbs should be included in a school garden if space allows. People who do not know much about making fresh food may not be familiar with herbs – their uses or nutritional value.
Even more people know nothing about restorative and medicinal qualities of herbs, and many will find it interesting or helpful to learn about them. If nothing else, fragrances will form memories that underlie the entire gardening experience.**
If space and budget allow for larger, long-term plantings. For instance, add perennial plants or beds that will provide structure year after year. Although the rewards of planting a fruit shrub may not be immediate, teaching children about delayed gratification is important, too. Planting a fruit tree with a marker for the graduating class balances nostalgia and consideration of the future.
A perennial bed of asparagus, artichoke, or prickly pear cactus is a gift to the future. If there is a strong foundation, the garden will survive future lean years when funding or volunteers are stretched.
Be sure to share the wealth of the school garden with the entire school. Harvest celebration is an ancient practice and one that all can enjoy. Allowing children to see how food is raised and the goodness of fresh produce are lifelong lessons. Children who appreciate vegetables and fruit are healthier eaters and will continue to seek their goodness.
Plan a school garden to sustain the children and community with nutritious foods. Plan a school garden that helps to sustain itself. And plan a school garden where children participate in the entire process: from planting seeds to watering and weeding to harvesting and enjoying the fruits of their labor. Selecting appropriate crops is the foundation of a successful school garden.