In my last blog post I talked about the importance of creating a strong sense of ownership for a successful youth garden program. In this post, I thought I’d tell you about my favorite school garden tools and equipment… and some of them may surprise you. Here are the tools we could not live without at our school garden:
Sturdy Trowels – Since we garden in raised beds, we very rarely need any tools bigger than hand trowels. We use them to till the soil, plant, weed, and clean out the beds. We do have a couple of larger shovels that are helpful for turning compost and adding new soil when needed, but honestly, we could probably get by borrowing those if we did not have them on hand.
The best trowels are lightweight but sturdy and have no sharp edges. The trowels we use with our older students are metal with wood handles, but for the pre-k groups we opted to go with plastic trowels from Fiskars, which have worked out very well. We probably have about 15 trowels, which is more than enough for each child working in the garden at one time to have his or her own tool to use. (Another helpful school gardening tip is to work in small groups in the garden.) Although sharing is an important lesson to learn, when they are out in the garden kids want to be active, and having enough tools for everyone keeps things moving smoothly. Fortunately, trowels are very affordable and can last a long time when treated with respect and cleaned after use.
Buckets- We use 5-gallon buckets in so many different ways – to hold our tools (our trowels fit in them well), to collect weeds, and to move soil. We have even had students turn them upside down and use them as seats when they need a break. We do not have the space to store a wheelbarrow, so when we need to move soil filling up buckets has been an effective way to get the job done. Each student quickly figures out how much they are able to carry at a time. Buckets clean up easily with a spray from a hose, and once dried, they stack so that they take up very little storage space.
If you are just getting started and have very few funds for a garden, you can even use buckets to make a container gardens (just add holes or cut off the bottoms). Make sure to use buckets that are made of food-grade plastic and have never been used to hold any toxic materials. You may be able to get food-grade buckets donated from cafeterias or local restaurants or bakeries, as many staple ingredients are packed in buckets for transport. (If shopping at home centers or hardware stores, look for buckets that are specifically labeled as food-grade, they will not all fall into that category.) The Harris County Master Gardeners in Houston, Texas offer an innovative program called Cylinder Gardening using 5 gallon buckets. I highly recommend you check it out if you are short on space or resources. Bucket gardening can be a perfect solution especially for an urban schoolyard with little or poor quality soil.
One word of caution about buckets–do not leave standing water in buckets. Very young children could potentially drown if left unsupervised, and in our area we have to be very careful that they do not become breeding sites for mosquitoes.
Ice Cube Trays- We plant a lot of seeds in our garden, and ice cube trays have been an amazing addition to our supply list. Before discovering ice cube trays to sort our seeds, we would fumble around with seed packets and petri dishes, and often ended up with seeds in the wrong place or even whole packets of seeds accidently getting dumped on the ground in transport. Now each season we use mailing labels to label the individual cubes in a tray with a different seed name. Then the kids pick out the seeds they need, place them in the correct cube of their ice cube tray, and carry the tray to their garden beds. Even if the tray gets spilled, usually only a few seeds at a time are lost. The ice cube trays are so cheap and are incredibly effective. Love these things! I know it may sound silly, but finding this solution seriously made my job as the volunteer garden coordinator so much easier!
Planting Grids- As I mentioned in a previous blog, each season we divide up our beds into smaller plots, and our fourth graders partner up, plan, and then maintain their own little salad gardens. When making the design, they use a graph with each square representing 1 inch (Click here to download a pdf of the graph we use). It was not until after our first planting experience that I realized how hard it was for them to grasp the idea of scale and how to translate what they created on paper into the actual plot.
To remedy this, we created planting grids from wire hardware cloth with 1 inch squares (with layers of duck tape around the edges to protect from sharp points). The students can now lay those grids over their space, and it helps immensely when planting. Don’t get me wrong – we still end up over-planting, but it is a huge help with spacing and makes planting much less frustrating, especially for first time gardeners. Usually by their second season of gardening, many of the students don’t feel the need to use the grids, but they are always available as a guide.
Drip Irrigation- Although certainly not a garden essential, installing drip irrigation has been a big help in our gardening experience. Our system is not set on a timer and must be reconnected to our faucet with a hose each time it is used, but especially on hot days, it makes it so much easier for one teacher to run out, connect the system, let it drip for 20 to 25 minutes, and then run back out and turn it off. In addition to the time savings, the water ends up getting deeper in the soil, and we do not lose as much to evaporation. However, I think the biggest benefit comes from directing irrigation water away from the leaves of the plants . When your beds are overcrowded (as ours always are, since thinning is a dreaded activity for our young gardeners), wet foliage and poor air circulation can lead to disease problems. We always see fewer problems when we are able to use the drip irrigation more than overhead watering.
So there are some of my favorite tools for our raised bed garden. I know this list would vary if you are planning an in-ground or container garden, so please feel free to use the comment section if you have a favorite tool to share!
Next up, School Garden Tip #3: Don’t Skimp on Soil.