Often schools have gardens that don’t get used because gardens are only useful if they are well maintained, which requires people power. In a school, students are people power. Rarely will a school have the resources to assign staff person devoted to garden maintenance, but with a few volunteers and a small group of students once a week a small garden can be nicely maintained (planning, planting, watering, weeding, harvesting, composting, rotating), allowing for its use as an multi-disciplinary educational space by the rest of the school.
Naturally immersive and high-touch, the school garden environment engages students plain and simple. Many of the best teachers spend quite a few hours designing their physical classroom space to maximize its educational potential- posters, quotes, student work and photos hang on the walls. Aquariums, flower pots, and sculptures sit on the window sill. A garden doesn’t require this intentional teacher curation- its design and maintenance is the responsibility of the students, a structure that fosters ownership and motivation. Its potential for engagement is also miles above any regular indoor classroom. The garden is alive- the soil, plants, and air are all swarmed with activity that provide an entry point in to an engaged learning experience.
The idea that school gardens are excellent environments for engagement is not new. In fact, our country had a more rigorous school garden program a hundred years ago than it does today.
You enter a different world in a garden, it’s an environment teeming with biological diversity and memories of a different time. The garden is a stage for the performance of inspired exploration. Soils are analyzed under microscopes, worms are measured and counted, the old lady’s sitting at the front desk tell stories about their days growing food as children as the way food got on the table. These are lessons more powerful that you can find in any textbook.
Gardens cultivate social, emotional and physical health. Any class can have an amazing experience in a garden, so long as the session is structured thoughtfully, and each participant is aware of the goals and the roles and has the tools needed for success. Special needs students, gifted students, ESOL, any core subject or expressive art can enhanced through garden-based instruction.
For work in a garden, the most important supply is a safe, convenient space to hold your supplies. This can be an outdoor shed or closet inside a classroom, or anywhere else that meets the criteria.
Next most important are gloves (for every participant) and a hose, followed by sturdy tools like shovels, trowels, hoes, rakes, forks, etc. If the garden is on the larger side, a wheelbarrow is essential.
Integrating documentation into the garden maintenance adds a layer of depth to the learning. It allows the group to learn from past experience, and also share their knowledge with the greater community. Simple tools for documentation include journals, clipboards, and pens. To advance another step, use photography, video cameras, and voice recorders to capture the learning. Our ability to use expensive equipment rested on our partnerships with college students, who would rent fancy cameras from the technology lending center on campus and bring them to the school.
Eventually, once you start digging into various garden manuals on the web and in the library, you will learn of all sorts of strategies to continue making your garden more sustainable and abundant- from crop rotation, to composting, to seed saving. You will want to start your own saved seeds indoors, then into a hoop house to harden off. All these advancements require more supplies, many of which (with ingenuity and patience) can be repurposed and recycled.
Group Size (young people)
Garden maintenance is an activity that support any number of students, broken up into small groups and assigned to specific tasks. When these groups are unsupervised, a tactic to maintain focus and engagement is to give the students a detailed activity to master (with information rich resources such as seed packets, a cell phone with the internet, etc) and the instruction to complete the activity and rehearse a tutorial that will be filmed at the end of the lesson. Through the videotaping, the students become teachers and are able to immediately witness the outcome of their hard work.
Group Size (older folks)
If experienced, only one person is needed to oversee a group of up to 40 students. The students work in groups of five, have a specific activity to accomplish, are briefly trained in the activity (if needed), and then get to work. Of course more volunteers and older participants is ideal, as the students receive more frequent support when needed.
Once a school garden is built, for it to be useful as an educational space, it needs to be regularly maintained. Designing a sustainable system for weeding, planting, watering, and harvesting in the garden is the responsibility of the Rebel Gardeners. It just takes an hour twice a week for a group of 10 or so Rebel Gardeners to maintain a garden with ten 4×6 raised beds. The Rebel Gardeners also create the Master Crop Plan, a document that is posted in the main office of the school. This way everybody knows what is planted where in the garden, and what is ok to pick. It’s always nice to have a perennial herb garden for parents, teachers, and staff to harvest as often as they wish for personal use.
With the weeding and watering responsibilities taken care of by the Rebel Gardeners, this opens up the opportunity for any teacher in the school to use the garden as an outdoor classroom. In math students can measure and graph the growth of spinach leaves and in English the herbs, flowers, bugs, and butterflies will inspire poetry. Have an open door policy to teachers and students to plant their own vegetables, so long as they coordinate this with the Rebel Gardeners so the master crop plan can be adjusted accordingly. This fosters community ownership of the garden.
The work involved maintaining a school garden, while seemingly mundane, makes for great games. At first glance, few kids meet the task of weeding with great enthusiasm, especially of the weather is at all uncomfortable. But turn the weeding of the broccoli bed into a competition- whoever has the biggest weed pile in 10 minutes wins 5 grapes- and you’ll witness the focused and rapid extraction of root from ground. Just make sure to inspect the piles at the end, to make sure there aren’t any broccoli plants in the pile, as this results in automatic disqualification.
Like any Rebel Gardeners activity, each session begins with goals, tasks, and roles written on the board. Most tasks require students to work in small groups. Any trainings and demonstrations that are needed are carried out, and we all get right to work sustaining the health of the soil and of our community.