Yesterday I received an email request from a teacher I work with: “Do you have some time to come talk with our staff about making strategic plant selections for our school garden?” I immediately began compiling some recommendations and helpful guidelines to present to teachers at an upcoming meeting. I thought I’d share some of this advice in today’s blog; below you’ll find a list of questions I encourage folks to consider before putting any seeds or starts in the ground:
- What is the purpose of your garden this growing season? Is it to use as a outdoor classroom and demonstrate life science concepts in action? Is it to attract pollinators? Is it to grow food that can be used in the school cafeteria or in classroom cooking activities? Do you want to donate produce to families or a local food bank? I think this is a key question that will guide the rest of your garden planning, informing both the varieties and quantities you’ll plant.
- How much space do you have? I’ve worked with many schools where each classroom is assigned a single small garden bed. Often times these garden beds are overflowing with plants—ten carrots here, six radishes there, two kale plants, a smattering of flowers, and sprawling cucumber vines spilling over the sides of the bed or slowing choking out the rest of the plants. If you have limited space it may be tempting to cram as much into your garden bed as possible (especially if your class is having a hard time deciding on a single veggie), but remember that cramped quarters often lead to stunted growth. Even if you decide to go with one variety, be sure to leave the proper amount of space between plants so that they can grow to their full potential.
- What will happen to the garden over the summer? For many schools, the bulk of the growing seasons falls during summer vacation, and it’s essential to answer the following two questions: 1. Do you have reliable summer maintenance? 2. Do you have a plan for produce over the summer? If you answer “no” to both questions, then I’d highly recommend planting low yield, low maintenance crops, such as carrots, winter squash, sweet potatoes, etc. Once these crops are in the ground they simply require regular watering and occasional weeding. They’re not like tomatoes, which require frequent pruning and continual harvesting during the height of the summer.
- When do you want to harvest? While it’s exciting to plant with students the second the conditions are right, consider timing first. Vegetables grow at different rates. Some, like leaf lettuces and radishes, only take a few weeks to reach maturity, while others, such as potatoes and squash, take significantly longer. For example, if you plant cucumbers before the end of the school year, they’ll be ready to harvest in the middle of the summer when no one is around, but if you wait until later in the summer to plant then your cucumbers will be ready for students when they return to school in the fall. Consider your ideal harvesting date and work backwards (using the “days to maturity” information often found on seed packets) to figure out the right time to direct seed or transplant.