School Gardens in the Summer

“What happens to all these lovely school gardens in the most bountiful months of the summer, when school is out and there is no one to tend them?” Kathleen Kesson poses this often-asked question in an excellent article found in Seven Days Kids. Experience tells us that the answer boils down to two areas: 1) finding the right match, i.e. people to tend the garden, and 2) making a smart plan, i.e. planning your garden according to how it will be used.

Finding the Right Match

Before diving into your search for volunteers, first examine: What is the purpose of our garden? How can we best serve that purpose by finding the right match for who is going to tend the garden? Here are a few creative examples of “the right match.”

  • Kathleen’s article points to Montpelier High School garden program where “students can earn graduation credits studying history, psychology, economics and sociology, all in the context of tending the gardens, making salsa and other products in student-run businesses, and partnering with community organizations to serve those in need.”
  • Gateway Greening, a St. Louis-based non-profit, offers several creative ideas on summer maintenance from schools in their network. Among my favorites was a series of garden parties hosted by the PTO. These were small festivals held each Tuesday evening in the garden during the summer, with a variety of activities featured–demonstrations, workshops, yoga, music, food trucks, potluck dinners, a student-run farmer’s market and more!
  • In Brattleboro, several area schools support a garden educator to provide oversight and learning around their school gardens. In the summer months this educator expands her work to schools across the district to offer a summer program for students and families that brings together gardening and the arts. This program and her position is supported through a collaborative effort between local nonprofits and schools. Other schools have latched on to a similar idea, setting up a “garden club” as a part of existing school or community-based summer youth programs.
  • Some schools have taken advantage of work training or college internship programs that provide people looking to build skills and fulfill training hours with a hands-on learning opportunity.
  • Many schools opt for the adopt-a-bed scenario, where families and friendly neighbors tend to plots in exchange for the opportunity to take home produce over the summer.
  • A rotating schedule of volunteers is also common and can cover weeding, watering and harvest without much commitment from any one individual.

In any summer maintenance scenario, a common denominator should be the presence of a point-person or coordinating group for the garden. While this person or group of people should not be in charge of all of the tending, they play an essential role in communicating the work to be done, providing the tools and other guidance to complete tasks, and overseeing other essentials.

Making a Smart Plan

  • Plan for how your harvest will be used before you put the plants in the ground. More and more Vermont schools that don’t have a use for garden produce during the summer months, but want to keep the garden as a teaching tool, plan for spring and/or fall harvests. KidsGardening has this helpful lesson plan on how to Create a School Garden Planting Calendar, accompanied by their own easily downloadable Interactive Spring Planting Calendar. Also Johnny’s Selected Seeds has this Fall – Harvest Planting Calculator for helping you plan out your planting schedule according to a fall harvest.
  • Plant what you can manage and if you know you can’t handle a full planting in a given season, use this as a great excuse to let a bed or two lie fallow, cover cropping as needed. Cover crops can be another fun teaching tool! Check out these tips on growing buckwheat–an excellent warm-season cover crop.
  • Gather a work party early in the season to weed thoroughly. Getting rid of the early weeds will save time later.
  • Follow your weeding directly with a heavy layer of mulch to reduce the amount of weeding and watering needed.
  • Consider watering systems like drip irrigation that can water efficiently and deeply, and can be set on a timer.
  • Click here for more “Work Smarter, Not Harder” tips from Charlie Nardozzi.
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