Food Garden 101 for Semi-Reluctant Groups

This spring, my children's school is finally starting a food garden. You may have heard of the many projects nationwide to get children interested in "real food", and if you have school-aged children, you may have wondered what it takes to get one of these going.

In our school, we got help from a Boulder project called "Garden-to-Table". The fact that they had experience and a reputation was instrumental in getting a small area assigned to us. They also help with compost and drip irrigation, and on planting days. We started in the fall, with a soil-building activity, and then waited for the snow to melt.

The title of this blog post comes from the fact that our project is progressing in such a tentative way. While it is still in an early stage, what I have learned so far leads me to believe that anyone can get started with something like this at their school, even if the enthusiasm is not overwhelming.

Our school's principal is very concerned with overburdening the teachers. The last two years saw a major school remodel, with some classrooms moving to trailers temporarily, noise, dust, discomfort and upheaval galore. As part of the remodel, solar panels were installed, which generated a demand for some curriculum projects on the teachers' part. Asking them now to shoehorn garden activities and more ties into the curriculum would be the wrong thing to do.

But the first grade teachers decided to go for it, so off we are. Our plot is a triangle, half of a 30x48 ft rectangle. The soil there is rocky and dead. We have hit problems already - someone brought a bale of hay (instead of straw) during our soil-building activity, so now we have a ton of weed seeds. We'll have to build raised beds, when we could have otherwise just used a straightforward lasagna soil-building technique.

But here's what we are doing that could inspire a few brave souls to try this at their school: we have a plan that works in stages.

The first stage starts April 1st. The 1st graders are planting about 60 lettuce starts, along with radish and spinach seeds. They'll have four 3x7 foot raised beds, which evidently is plenty of space. Lettuce and radishes will be harvested in mid-May, before school is over, around our area's last frost date. Then the pepper and tomato plants will go into those raised beds. Given the cool Boulder nights, we don't expect to harvest tomatoes or peppers until the kids come back to school in late August. Nevertheless, there will be weekly summer volunteers to keep an eye on things (and to keep a hoe on weeds).

The second stage is optional, and will depend on available parent and teacher energy. We are planting a traditional Native American arrangement of corn, beans and squash, in 3x8 ft beds (that's about 8 corn plants, just enough to pollinate each other). In order to avoid harvesting in the summer, we have planned for beans that are best eaten dried, corn that will work well as popcorn, and winter squash (butternut makes a nice pumpkin pie!). The corn seeds can go in May 1st, and the bean and squash seeds about 2 weeks later. This makes it tight because school is out right before Memorial Day for us this year. But in the fall, the first graders start the year with a Native American curriculum unit, and this could be a focal point before the mid-September harvest.

The third stage is even more optional. We will build (maybe next year, maybe the Brownies will do it this year) a 5x9 ft herb spiral. This is a classic permaculture technique for accomodating plants' diverse needs. The spiral is raised about 3 feet in the center, and slopes down as it unwinds. This can be planted in perennials, such as chives, thyme, lavender, sage, etc... At our school, the kindergarteners make soup every week, so they will be directed to the herb spiral. Thyme will be harvestable throughout the winter.

Finally, there is a fourth stage, that will be mainly dependent on money. If there is energy for a bake sale, then we can afford to buy a few planters for invasive tea herbs, such as mint, lemon balm, and bee balm. All the grades drink tea, so this could be a lot of fun! The bee balm in particular comes up in May here, and the tea from it is very lemony. It will attract many insects, which will hopefully be useful to the second graders' insect curriculum unit.

Might you have an area in mind for a garden at your kids' school? I say go for it!

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