HHG Gardening Jan/Feb 2012

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Gardening in the Schoolyard

Children sitting in classrooms are still in vacation mode and hard-working teachers are anxious to transmit great academic truths to their desk-bound captives.

One such teacher may have just read research from www.kidsgardening.com about how school gardens can increase science achievement scores, improve social skills and behavior, improve environmental attitudes, increase interest in eating fruits and vegetables, and instill appreciation and respect for nature.

Rather than droning on about science or sociology, this teacher takes the class outside for a team-building project to construct compost bins and raised garden beds—creating a hands-on science project  incorporates measuring (math), team-work, English (students have to write about the project), and maybe even history (researching native plants of the area). Beginning a school garden—whether outside or a few potted plants on a windowsill—can revive the classroom through the winter months and springboard into a vibrant educational experience all the way from kindergarten through the high school level.

Most teachers are already putting in way more hours than their pay reflects and sometimes the idea of taking on a task like a school garden can be overwhelming, even when the benefits are evident.  So volunteers can help with the steps that Will Green at Texas A&M gives in this startup guideline from http://aggie-horticulture.tamu.edu:

Starting School Gardens

School gardens can provide an environment in which students can learn to work with teachers, parents, and neighborhood resident volunteers while growing plants and learning the relationship between people, plants, and wildlife. The lessons taught at the garden site are limited only by one’s creativity. School gardens are  special learning centers and, like libraries, they need responsible and knowledgeable people to do the jobs necessary to maintain them as functional places in which children will learn. They should be seen as permanent additions and must be utilized year-round. Below is a framework to consider before starting a school garden.

Step 1. Form a garden committee
As a teacher, you do not have the time that is needed to coordinate the garden program. Someone else has to be responsible for the garden work, finding funds to support the garden, scheduling educational activities, finding and training volunteers, researching and disseminating information. Forming a garden committee from a pool of dedicated people with those skills, will enhance the success of the program. Look for volunteers among school staff, parents, and local residents. If you know a gardener, ask that person to volunteer or to recommend another gardener.

Step 2. Define the purpose and objectives of the gardenEvery school garden must fulfill some need or objective, so each garden is unique. All teachers utilize the garden as a learning aid. For some teachers it may reinforce natural science classroom studies. For others it may reinforce social studies. Some teachers may utilize the garden across all curriculums. Addressing the garden’s objectives will give a better understanding of the work involved at this stage.

Step 3. Layout your students gardening activities

By determining the garden’s objectives now, teachers can look at their lesson plans to determine when and what types of garden lessons are needed. There are many resources available for teachers. You will need to determine which groups of students will be doing what and when, and determine how bed space will be allocated. The experiences and input from your garden committee will be helpful at this stage. This is your opportunity to schedule specific activities at specific times or assign certain tasks to your volunteers.

Step 4. Define a year-round garden plan
The garden plan so far takes care of the garden’s requirements during the school term. But you need to consider your garden during summer break. The main question is, “Who is going to keep this garden maintained until school starts?” “How do you want the garden to look on the first day of school?” A year-round garden plan is necessary to cover any school breaks.

Step 5. Choose a permanent garden site and design the garden
The garden site should be in an area that receives plenty of sunlight, has good drainage, and is in close proximity to water, electricity, and is accessible to students, volunteers, and teachers. The site should have enough room for your garden, tool storage, and students. Maintaining a large garden will use up all of your time and energy, so select a relatively small area.

Step 6. Build your garden according to plan
This is the big moment when teachers, volunteers, students, and parents pool their resources and build this permanent addition to the school.

I was at a Elmington Park in Nashville where my adult niece’s husband pointed out to me the gardens surrounding the nearby West End Middle School. Brilliant asters and blazing red maples drew me to the school yard where I found a Cumberland River Compact Rain Garden (www.cumberlandrivercompact.org) and raised bed overflowing with fall herbs, vegetables, and flowers. These folks have started with something manageable, yet even in a small area they are creating ecospheres of learning.

I also visited the Stonewall Jackson Elementary school garden in Dallas, where 20,000 sq. ft. of outdoor space has been turned into an outdoor laboratory where students tend crops and conduct science experiments (http://www.stonewallgardens.org/). This was a project that started small and has grown to an award-winning school program. I walked with students as they conducted their classes and was fascinated by how focused and directed these students were in their activities.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that outdoor school gardens can be carried on through the college level, as at the University of Tennessee gardens. In their trial gardens, the school has created a handicap accessible garden with elevated beds that can be tended to by those who are wheelchair bound.  (www.utgardens.tennessee.edu)

For more information about starting a garden at your school, visit www.schoolgardenwizard.orgwww.realschoolgardens.org, and www.kidsgardening.org.

One last note: If want some container gardening ideas for either your school or your home, my new book, “Container Gardening for All Seasons – Enjoy Year-round Color with 101 Designs” is now available on Amazon and will be in book stores Feb. 13.

Editor’s Note: Barbara Wise, floriculture director with Southern Land Company, LLC, brings her gardening expertise and experience to readers of House & Home & Garden™.  You can now read more of Barbara’s plant musings at bwisegardening.com or follow on twitter@bwisegardens. E-mail your questions to her at barbara.wise@southernland.com.

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