Young Sprouts: Outdoor Gardening Tips
6/15/2022 | Emily Jaeger
So, you’ve decided to build an outdoor school garden. Exciting times are ahead. You’ve selected and set up the perfect garden beds for your facility. You’ve also assigned one of your team to be the official gardening coordinator (who divides up tasks and makes sure the garden is maintained). The only thing that remains is, well, the gardening part.
Here are some gardening tips and tricks to keep your new center of experiential learning green and happy:
Soil and Compost
Whether you are working with the soil you have on-site or bringing it in from elsewhere, compost is your best friend when it comes to improving soil quality and growing healthy plants. And you don’t need that much: you only want your garden soil to contain about 5-10% compost. More than that can throw your soil’s nutrients off balance and harm your plants. If you are already composting in some capacity, this is the perfect time to show learners how compost is used. They can help mix mature compost into garden soil with their hands, shovels, or spoons.
Planting is a moment full of hope and anticipation. It’s probably my favorite part of gardening other than harvesting. While advanced gardeners can take planting to an intense level of complexity, this isn’t really appropriate for a school garden. Here are some basic planting ideas for small gardens that will help you get the most out of your space:
This seasonal planting guide tells you what and when to plant by zip code. In many places, it is possible to do 2-3 plantings of different crops per season (spring, summer, and fall).
Check out this great companion planting guide. Perhaps you’ve heard of the three sisters--corn, beans, and squash--a famous companion planting used by indigenous Americans. The corn works as the trellis for climbing beans, while the squash shades the roots. Companion planting is a great lesson in teamwork and a celebration of differences. Companion planting tip: if you are planning a vegetable garden, consider mixing some flowers into the bed to support pollinators.
Instructions for seed spacing, how far apart to plant seeds and seedlings, usually come with plants and seed packets. However, you will find that these recommendations don’t really make sense for a small school garden. You will end up with a lot of blank space (a.k.a. weed territory) and few garden plants. Consider these intensive gardening techniques to plant closer together. Not only will intensive gardening use your limited garden space more efficiently but closer spacing of plants crowds out weeds.
One great way to involve all of your classes in a shared school garden is by growing seedlings. You can start many vegetables and flowers in store-bought or DIY propagation trays indoors 3-4 weeks before planting. Make sure to harden off seedlings outdoors overnight to help them transition from the window to the garden bed.
Don’t forget to label plants in the garden so you know what is what! Also, make a garden map. It’s not ideal to plant the same plants in exactly the same spot every year. This will attract pests, cause plant diseases to pass from one year to the next, and over-tax your soil. A garden map can help you with crop rotation for the next year. Check out this guide to learn how to rotate garden crops.
Vegetable gardens need 1 inch of rainwater per week--this amounts to about 1-2 good waterings per week. Direct watering towards the roots of the plants, not the leaves. Water drops on leaves are basically magnifying glasses for the sun. Watering can be a fun activity to divide up among your classes. However, your gardening coordinator should check regularly to make sure that plants aren’t distressed (either by underwatering or overwatering) and adjust accordingly.
If you are practicing intensive gardening, you will cut back on a lot of weeding. Still, the sooner you weed the better because things can get out of hand quickly. Weeding is a great (supervised) activity for young children. Just make sure they know where to pull and where to leave garden plants in place.
Especially from year two of your garden and onward, most of your local fauna will know that you are growing a tasty salad bar (just for them!). Conventional pesticides are not safe for school gardens. Instead, consider organic solutions to garden pests in addition to crop rotation. Your learners can also help out with pest management by (gently) scouting the undersides of plant leaves for bug eggs. Regularly removing and destroying eggs before they hatch will save you a lot of headaches.
Emily Jaeger is a professional writer with a background in education (she's taught every age group from preschool to retirement). Her writing has been featured on Parents Magazine, Kveller, Motherfigure and more. You can connect with Emily via her website emilyjaeger.com or on instagram @soulinparaphrase.
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