In many regions of the US, kids are going back to school after a more than a year of online learning. Getting outside and connecting with nature is, more than ever, an important experiential part of learning. Multiple studies have shown that middle school students are “highly motivated by the pleasures of gardening and the opportunity to get dirty outside, and were excited by exploratory learning framed in a garden context.”* Here are a few of the common themes that showed up in qualitative studies of school garden effects:
- Students show pride in the garden and its produce. To maximize your chances of building a garden to be proud of, start with a plan.
Evaluate your space. Your garden should be accessible, have a nearby water source, and be exposed to at least 6 hours of full sun a day. Once you know where your garden will be situated, find resources and build partnerships. Recruit volunteers so that the garden will be maintained even while school is not is session. Plan training sessions for staff and volunteers. Involve parents.
2. School gardens provide educational opportunities in environmental stewardship, math, and science. The soil is a good place to start.
Testing the soil provides an opportunity to discover and discuss the many elements that make up good productive soil. Test for nutrients, contaminants, and pH, and determine the relative percentages of sand, silt, and clay. Explore the living things in the soil.
If your soil is contaminated, build raised beds. Students can assist in figuring out the quantity of soil needed to fill the raised beds with soil mix. Multiply the length x width x depth of the beds (2 feet depth is recommended) to get the volume in cubic feet. Divide this number by 27 to determine how many cubic yards of garden soil you will need.
3. Vegetable gardens were helpful in nutrition education, and stimulated children to experience healthful foods. Choose vegetables that are suited to your climate, and your time frame.
For spring and fall gardens, try the following:
Bush beans, Beets, Broccoli, Carrots, Kale, Peas, Radishes, Salad Greens, Spinach, Swiss Chard
Vegetables that have large seeds, such as beans and peas, are easily planted by young students. Other seeds, including carrots, lettuce, and radishes, are much more difficult to handle and, if sown too close together, will eventually have to be thinned. Consider creating seed tape using toilet paper. Lay out a 3-foot strip of toilet paper and sprinkle seeds, spacing them roughly two inches apart. Spray the toilet paper with water once the seeds are where you want them, and fold it over lengthwise so that you have a 3-foot length of seed tape that is ½ the width of a piece of toilet paper.
Students who garden get excited about tasting what they grow. Some schools plan tasting events.
4. A non-structured, discovery approach provided students with opportunities to explore natural phenomena. Encourage insects, and explore the interactions.
Plant flowers in and around your school garden to attract insects of all kinds. And, rather than regarding garden insects as problems to be solved, look at your garden as a community of living things. Aphids attract lady beetles; cabbageworms attract wasp parasitoids. Although black swallowtail butterfly larvae will eat the parsley you plant, they morph into beautiful butterflies.
Inspect the insects in your soil and on your plants. Discuss their functions. Take photos of them. Together, learn how the insects relate to the plants and to each other.
5. School gardens require dedicated, experienced, adult volunteers.
Adult volunteers can be invaluable in helping to keep weeds under control.
Weeding can be a challenge in a school garden, so use strategies to minimize weeds. Put newspaper or cardboard down between rows, and cover it with straw. Weeds will still grow, of course, so learn to identify those that are most prevalent in your garden, and acquaint students and adult volunteers with them. One weeding strategy is to pull just one type of known weed per gardening session. Enlist the help of volunteers who have vegetable gardening experience.
*Blair, Dorothy (2009). The Child in the Garden: An Evaluative Review of the Benefits of School Gardening. Journal of Environmental Education, 40(2), 15-38.