Carolina gardener gives tips on creating a schoolyard garden
by Ellen Goff
If you have school-aged children, you're well-acquainted with selling candy and wrapping paper and volunteering for the parent-teacher association, so why not give some time and energy to experiential learning by starting a schoolyard garden?
A deceptively simple idea, a garden requires a lot of planning to ensure short-term success as well as longevity. Here are some ideas parents can use to draft an action plan for launching a school garden project.
Creating a garden is a process; one that will continue for years. First, schedule a meeting with potential participants and volunteers. Contact teachers, key members of the parent-teacher organization and others who can provide time, guidance and materials. Perhaps there's a landscaper, naturalist or experienced home gardener among the parents. Or even recruit someone like Mary Stauble, an environmental consultant, educator and Master Gardener who works with the Mecklenburg County Department of Waste Reduction PLANT program on their School Yard Habitat Initiative.
Through her experience with groups interested in starting garden projects, Stauble says it's essential to engage all the adults in the process. "You need to bring everyone together with a set of realistic goals: to provide opportunities for students to explore and observe the natural world, and to foster kids' sense of identity and ownership."
When choosing a site, start small. Eighty to 100 square feet is manageable. Find a spot that receives at least six hours of unobstructed sunlight each day, has a nearby water source and is accessible to a driveway.
The kids should then decide what type of garden they want. They can create a schoolyard habitat with native plants to attract birds, butterflies and insects. Many kids like to eat what they grow, so fruits and vegetables also make popular choices. Bring in seed catalogs for them to browse and search school garden websites.
To keep students interested and involved, Stauble suggests you talk less and do more. "Hands-on activities are the key," she says.
Sharpen the kids' math skills by enlisting their help to draft a time line, starting with the ideal planting date and working backward. Say today is Feb. 1. If you plan to grow strawberries, and their ideal planting date is May 1, you have 12 weeks to create a plan, prepare the site and purchase plants. Plan at least one Saturday work day when families can participate in preparing the soil for planting.
Finally, determine who will care for the garden during the summer and schedule volunteers in advance.
Creating a schoolyard garden brings many rewards. "I'm amazed by how many people can be touched by a garden in ways never anticipated," Stauble says. "Students in one garden gathered seeds to take home and plant in their own yards — they got their families involved in planting the seeds and showed them what they had learned.
Students who planted strawberries were so excited about their crop that each child wanted to be photographed holding the first berry. Gardens are places that inspire people of all ages and open their sense of wonder in a really magical way."
Ellen Goff is a Master Gardener and environmental advocate. Aside from writing about and photographing plants, Ellen tends to a 3-acre landscape she shares with her husband, cat and border collie on the shores of Lake Wylie, S.C.