Getting Ready to Plant in a School Garden

For the last two weeks, I’ve been making regular trips to the school gardens I now manage. They are vast and I am not yet done cleaning up the plants, now dead, left to serve as winter interest and perhaps some sources of food for the birds.  I am about two thirds of the way done with the clean up.

This morning, I looked at the calendar and decided on some dates on which the planting of these large and beautiful school gardens could take place. The time for planting is drawing near. Usually, at my “old” school, the planting of our garden was taken care of by just the garden club members and any other volunteers, such as high school students, that I could find to assist us.  Being that our group ranged from 25-60 on any given year, I needed the help. Some years, help was scarce. High schoolers are busy in May, as are parents and teachers. I know, I’ve been both.  On a couple of occasions, it was me and 25 students in our small perennial garden on school grounds, planting the annuals in May for some instant color. Some years went better than others, but planning is key.

What Have I Learned?

I’ve learned many things over the previous thirteen years of planting a school garden in May. I considered many, if not all of them, when I was planning the schedule today.

#1 – Never plant too early. Here, in the upper mid-west, it’s really safest to wait until the end of May – Memorial Day. But, if you are planting at schools, with students, and want them involved, planting can be done around the middle of the month. I just try not to put anything in the ground until May 15th or later. So, this year I am looking at three dates after the 15th. If the weather continues its current warming trend, we’ll be fine.

#2 – Make sure you have enough help. Ideally, when you are in a garden with students, the ratio of adults/children (elementary aged) is 1:5. As stated, this is the ideal. It rarely happens to be able to enjoy such a small ratio.

This year, I have a small garden club group. I only have 5 members. But, this school has a history of planting with the whole student body! Each student in grades K-5 plants an annual in the garden. While I am a very organized person, I am still wrapping my head around the logistics of doing this. The main reason is that I can foresee a few problems.

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One is making sure I have enough help. We have a business providing volunteers to the school on a regular basis this year. I was asked if I could used 10-15 young adults to help me in the garden on a particular day – in May – after the 15th! I answered with a resounding, YES! However, as of yet, I do not know what time to expect the volunteers which makes it hard to let the teachers plan their day. I hope what I suggested works, but it will require some flexibility on everyone’s part.  In addition, and as I also know from experience, not everyone works well with young children. The kindergarteners and first graders, especially will need a lot of support and guidance. I’ve seen many a plant stuffed into a too small hole in a school garden, only to have its root system dried up and have deleterious effects on the plant’s survival!

An Important Request

I also asked that the teachers stay with their classes during these planting sessions. I asked kindly, not to pass any pre-judgement but knew to be clear about this based on my past experience. Last year, when presenting to an on forests to an entire student body divided into grade level sections, several teachers left their students with me (and my assistant – who was assigned to me but did not know for she was a substitute on top of it all), while I spoke to the students. Of course, we experienced some behavior issues with our audience. I felt it was rude. And, I do not want to experience it again. So, I am being upfront about my expectations this time. Planting in the garden is to give their students and additional learning experience, not to afford an additional break to the teachers. I know this sounds harsh, but it is the way I feel.

In addition, the importance of this is highlighted by the fact that I do not know any of these students, aside from the five in my garden club. There is a reason I do not usually take the students out in the fall to do garden work with tools.  It is because I don’t know them. Believe it or not, garden tools can present some danger!  The same very much applies to this student body, I do not know what behavior problems might exist, what or who to watch. Therefore, I ask that the staff that knows the students in their class to attend the planting session.

Buying Plants

#3- Back to what I need to consider when planting the garden. I need to be able to purchase enough plants! This is one of the most fun parts of planting a school garden. Yet, again, this year presents a challenge. I am at a new school, where the whole student body puts in one plant. (Yes, I am questioning the value of that. But, given that it is my first year and the garden club is small, I am going to try to stay with their tradition.)  I need numbers. So, in an email today to the principal, I asked her to provide me with the number of students in each classroom and/or in each grade level. Luckily, the school had a Jeans Day Fundraiser and is gifting me, as the Garden Club Advisor, $275.00 for plant purchasing! Wow! I have never been gifted that amount of money for garden purposes. You can be sure I am very, very grateful to not have to worry about this. However, given the number of students involved, I will still have to make economical purchases.  The school’s PTO or TEAM, as they are called,  also has money in reserve for me to purchase mulch. This makes me feel fortunate and supported in my efforts.

To sum it up, I picked dates, I am planning for volunteer involvement, I am conscious of the busy-ness of this time of year – making sure no conflicts exist with other special events, and I communicated my plans. Now, I just have to wait and hope for good weather!

 

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