Back to School: Fall Garden Planning

successful year in the school garden

Summer really flew by this year and it is hard to believe it is already time to head back to school. We are deep in planning and preparation for our upcoming fall garden.

Here in Texas the heat and undependable rain create poor conditions for trying to keep a school garden growing well through the summer. Add in the fact that our school maintenance crew stops mowing for those months and you end up with a weedy haven and habitat for insects of all kinds. To keep our sanity, we try to focus on growing plants that can reach maturity before school ends every year and then empty all the beds for the summer.

That being said, this year, we deviated from our normal routine because we had an exceptional tomato crop that matured later than we’d planned, so we did not get the beds cleaned out until July 8, about one month after school ended. Every plant and weed was removed that weekend, and I left the final work day feeling like things were finally wrapped up for the year. As much as I love our garden, I was really, really, really ready for a break (and I can’t eat another tomato!!!!). Next year, I assure you, we will be paying much closer attention to choosing quick growing tomatoes (probably cherry varieties) so that kids will have more time to enjoy the harvest before school ends.

We had a lot volunteer basil plants which I decided are the best weeds since they give off a pleasant smell when you pull or step on them.

With the final garden clean up later in the year than usual, I thought to myself, well at least that means things should be more under control when we return — right? That was just wishful thinking on my part. I came back one month later to find the garden in exactly the same state as the year before, when we had a two month break between the last and first work days (see photo). In the future, we may try using some type of mulch to try and prevent weed growth over the summer, but since we knew it would be a short turn around this year and because our garden budget had reached $0, we decided against it. One of our biggest weed problems is nutsedge and honestly, mulch is not much of a deterrent for that hardy plant any way.

Fortunately, with the help of some awesome volunteers who braved our hottest day of the summer (unfortunately, I picked a horrible day for our garden clean-up), we were able to tame every thing back. However, since school started earlier than usual this year, it is going to be too hot to plant for a while. Instead we turned to our trusty grow lights for our first garden project of the year.

Most of our fall vegetable plants grow best when direct-seeded in the garden, but this year for the first time we are starting lettuce, kale, dill and marigolds indoors for later transplant to the outdoor garden. We have not tried doing this before because those first few weeks of school are so hectic that adding in another task seemed like a challenge. I am also not quite sure if everything will have enough time to grow before we need to plant outside … and we will have the Labor Day weekend challenge of not being able to get inside the school to water our seedlings. On the flip side, perhaps our indoor seed starting will help build enthusiasm for the garden program and maybe even save us a bit of money, so we are going to give it a shot. The kids definitely had a fun Friday of planting and the seeds were already sprouting by the next Monday - so far it is a win! I promise to report back in September.

Finally, I just want to end this blog to remind you about the BEE the Change Summer Pollinator Garden Giveaway. With the help of generous sponsors American Meadows and High Country Gardens, educators and parents can enter to win pollinator plants to help teach the children in their lives about pollinators. Don’t miss this opportunity! Make sure to enter by August 31st at:







Let’s Check on the Strawberries

successful year in the school garden

Taking my two kids to our community garden plot can sometimes feel like a monumental outing, despite the fact that it’s one block away from where we live. After a long day at school, they usually want to cuddle up with a book and bowl of Goldfish crackers, but if I’ve got kale on the menu for dinner, we need to venture out. Here are a few of my tricks to get everyone excited about checking out the garden.

  • A fun method of transportation. While our plot is only a block away, sometimes getting there is half the battle. The proximity makes it a great distance for a wagon ride. In the spring, when we were hauling plant supports and starts to the garden, we piled all the plants and small people into the wagon. Now, the wagon is great for hauling home a bucketful of cherry tomatoes, as well as little legs. Sometimes we’ll ride our bikes, but our plot is so close that we end up riding around the block a few times and then stopping at the garden.
  • My garden bribery strawberries. Quarter for scale.

    “Let’s go check on the strawberries!” This is what I say every.single.time I am getting my kids excited for a trip to the garden. We planted Day Neutral strawberries, which produce fruit continually throughout the summer. I’m always crossing my fingers the harvest goddess will come to my rescue and produce fruit in even numbers, because the math just does not work out to have one strawberry and two kids.

  • Their own produce bag. Allowing them to harvest hardier plants gives them ownership of the garden and what grows there. Sometimes my two year old puts green beans or tomatillos in her bag. Most of the time she collects wood chips and rocks.
  • Water-ready shoes and their own watering can. At ages 5 and 2, my kids think waterplay is the best summer activity ever. My 5 year old can fill a watering can and the kids will take turns watering the basil plants over and over again while I quickly cut kale for dinner.

The other day, as we toodled home with a full basket of garden goodies, my five-year old said, unprompted, “When you said ‘let’s go to the garden!’ I really didn’t want to go but I actually had a lot of fun.”

Do you have to cajole your kids to your community garden plot, or are they excited to see what’s growing?

Simple Steps to Starting a Successful Year in the School Garden

successful year in the school garden

It’s that time of year again, when you realize the summer has flown by and school is just around the corner! Are you planning for a successful year in the school garden? Whether your garden has been a hub of activity for the past few months or perhaps left a little neglected while students were away, it’s important to begin thinking about how your growing space will fit into the new school year. 

While the start of school is undeniably busy (as are the weeks leading up to it) try to take the time to complete these five simple steps to help ensure that your school garden isn’t left in the dust. 

  1. If you haven’t already, begin planting crops for a fall harvest. If you want something that will be ready for young gardeners to pick right when they get back to school consider seeding a bed of radishes, which mature in 3-4 weeks.
  2. Celebrate your summer volunteers! Send out thank you notes or emails letting folks know you appreciate all their hard work. Ask if they’re willing to spend time in the garden throughout the school year. Are any of them willing to support classrooms interested in visiting the garden for educational activities? Your goal should be to keep these volunteers engaged and connected.
  3. Take stock of your garden situation. Set up a garden committee meeting (or consider forming one if you don’t have one already) to determine any garden goals or projects for the new year. Consider creating a plan of action or list of needs that you can share with the PTA, teachers or school administration.
  4. A new school year often means new students and families, and sometimes new school staff, so make sure to spread the word about your school garden. Consider including a short write up about the garden in the first school newsletter; not only will it introduce new folks to the garden, but help remind others about how they can get involved.
  5. Encourage classrooms to get outside! Depending on how bountiful (or weedy) the garden is, you might organize a school-wide garden work day as a way to tackle new projects or catch up on maintenance. Alternatively, facilitate fun activities, like scavenger hunts, that help students get reacquainted with your growing space.


Growing Kids and Community on an Atlanta Urban Farm and Garden

Nine years ago, Bobby Wilson retired from the University of Georgia (UGA) Cooperative Extension. While the norm at this time of your life is to dream of relaxation, staycations and travel, Bobby had a different idea.   He used his retirement funds to purchase a 5-acre plot in downtown Atlanta, a decision supported by his wife, Margaret, and his family.

He called it the Metro Atlanta Urban Farm, and it’s now the headquarters of The American Community Gardening Association (ACGA), which Bobby was a leader and past president.

While at UGA as a Cooperative Extension Agent, he worked with underserved area residents in urban areas. One of his favorite initiatives involved working with seniors, many who were scared to venture outside in their neighborhoods. He used the garden to get the seniors outside and engaged in creating urban garden plots. In the housing projects he visited, he became known as the ‘garden man’ and was left alone.

“Retire?,’ says Bobby with a laugh, “I never thought of retiring and now I can work without getting bogged down in paperwork. Teaching underserved folks how to grow food has always been more than just about growing vegetables – you’re growing people no matter what their age.”

“We use our farm as a teaching tool and an empowerment zone. We want to give kids and people of all ages a sense of their worth and what they can do and that by focusing on something they can accomplish a lot for themselves and others,” continued Bobby.

So what kind of dividends has his retirement plan yielded?   Here’s a partial list:

  • 300 to 400 homeless are fed per month with produce from the farm through the Atlanta Union Mission
  • Site visits to churches and other nonprofits to help them identify garden leaders and sites to grow their own food with guidance from farm experts
  • Created the Metro Atlanta Urban Garden Leadership association as an opportunity to get urban gardeners together for gardening know-how, leadership, networking and problem-solving
  • 5,000 elementary school age kids per year visit the farm on fields trips to better understand the relationship between their food and the soil
  • Community service option for juvenile offenders. He’s now hired two of the kids who came from that program, as they’re not just working in the garden, but learning to cook, how to engage with others who may have different viewpoints and the value of teamwork
  • 500 children visit the farm’s seasonal festivals. They bring policeman to the event so children can meet and engage with the police in a friendly and safe space.

Bobby’s an example of how wealth should be measured – how you give back, engage with community and create meaningful change.

I’ve had the pleasure of knowing Bobby for about 20 years as an ACGA Board member and also had the opportunity to visit the farm last September at a Garden Writers Association conference.

All of us here at KidsGardening believe that every child should have the opportunity to learn through the garden and Bobby, Cathy, and their team only reaffirm our determination and passion for what we do. Learn more about the impact of getting more kids learning through the garden