The way that our school garden program is set up, each grade level has a different focus and different planting activities, which means that we could easily implement the exact same program every year and it would still be something new for the students. I will be the first to admit there would be benefits to keeping everything the same. It would eliminate the need for new handouts to be created, all of the teachers would be trained and know exactly what to expect with answers ready for common questions, left over seeds could be used (many seeds will germinate long after the sell by date listed on their packets) and it would be easier to predict the amount of volunteer labor needed and when it would be needed. Despite these added conveniences, my last school garden tip for you is to make sure to try something new every garden season. It could be a small change, like trying a new type of vegetable, or a big change like trying a different garden theme. But regardless of the size, I think there are two main reasons for shaking things up on a regular basis:
1. There is always room for improvement. Although finding time to evaluate your garden season at the end of the year seems like one more thing to do on top of an already long list, it is important to take time to gather feedback from students, teachers and garden volunteers and allow them to reflect on their experiences and give them a chance to provide suggestions for future gardens.
You can click here to download a copy of the end of the year survey that our school used this year. From this survey, I discovered that the most common responses for what they learned about growing a garden was that “it takes a long time” and “is hard work.” We had a beautiful crop of tomatoes this year with very few disease or insect problems, so quite honestly this was not the response I was expecting. However, I guess that by starting the plants from seed, transplanting them as they got larger, helping move them in and out of the building for a couple of weeks to help harden them off, planting and then making sure to keep them watered (we had a very dry spring so they needed a lot of irrigation water this year), allowed the students to get an up-close look at the work involved in growing your food.
Honestly, I was delighted with this answer. Not that I want them to think gardening is too much work (and since most of them mentioned how they were excited for next year and could not wait to grow an even bigger garden, I don’t think that was the case), but I do think it is important for kids to have a better appreciation of the farmers who keep our markets and grocery store shelves stocked. I hope this will increase the students’ perceived value of fresh fruits and vegetables and maybe encourage them to eat more.
I also think most of them enjoyed the added responsibility, and I know they were so proud of what they accomplished. That being said, perhaps we do need to spend a little more time on talking about the plant life cycle so that can get mentioned as an important lesson learned too. Through this survey I also got a lot of great ideas for next year. For instance, we had a lot of requests for strawberry plants so I hope to be able to make that happen next year.
Want more information on evaluating your garden program? The National School Garden Network recently hosted a webinar on “Measuring Impact” that provided a lot of great ideas, and the archive of the presentation will soon be available on their website.
2. The second reason to add something new to your garden each year is to keep it fun, not for the kids, but for you! Although with variables like weather and critters, you will never have the exact same gardening experience again, adding something new each year increases the interest and excitement of teachers and volunteers, translating into a contagious enthusiasm that shines through as they work with the students. It is a win for everyone!
In our fourth grade gardens this year we planted something new, Dragon’s Tail radish (pictured above), an Asian heirloom plant grown for edible seed pods rather than its roots and oops, I did not read the description very closely (some how I missed that they produce 3’ to 4’ tall plants), and they took over our vegetable gardens. The kids had an absolute blast with them. In addition to being large, they had beautiful flowers, colorful pods (although the consensus was that they looked more like rat tails) and a great spicy flavor. The teachers were as enthralled with watching them grow as the kids, and everyone wanted to try to save seeds to grow some at home. Just adding something a little unusual really added to the excitement of our spring garden.
So just to recap, here were my top 5 school garden tips:
- Create a Sense of Ownership
- Invest in Tools that Meet Your Needs
- Invest in Your Soil
- Allow Teachers to Chart Their Own Garden Journey
- Try Something New
Thanks for reading! I promise to take my advice and write about something new next time!