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Perfect Plants for a School Garden During the School Year
Q. Another teacher started a raised bed garden a few years ago that sits outside my classroom. Unfortunately that teacher left and the garden has gone dormant. I was a Peace Corps volunteer and worked a little with sustainable agriculture. I would love to do something with the garden. Any ideas?
    ---Bill Price; Hackett Elementary School in the Fishtown section of Philly
I'm a High School teacher. Our school's science teacher and I would like to start a garden to plant vegetables and herbs for the students to use in cooking classes. We had the shop teacher make framed raised beds, but what plants should we install? What vegetables grow in the fall? We also have a green house on the third floor of our school. We've never done anything like this before, and need some help!
    ---Deborah at Ridley High School in Folsom, PA
A. The idea of school gardens has become a very popular topic in our emails; and, of course, in our schools. But I'm an old curmudgeon when it comes to school gardens in the North. Don't get me wrong—I think they're a great IDEA. But the REALITY is that the school year and the gardening year don't mesh very well for most plants in areas with real winters.

Most plants, but not all plants. Asparagus, for instance. On a show earlier this year, I proposed the building of a big asparagus bed for a school garden in Annapolis, noting that virtually all of the action in such a bed takes place within the school year, and lots of different academic disciplines can be brought into play with that fun crop. Since then, I've gotten a lot of emails from teachers in the North asking 'what else can we grow like that?' So here's a short list of the best possibilities:
  • Spring bulbs. Absolutely perfect school year timing! You put the tulips, daffodils and such in the ground between Halloween and Thanksgiving, ignore them over winter, the flowers bloom in the Spring and the show is completely over before the school year ends.

  • Garlic. Close to perfect. Plant the cloves on the first school day you can get it together and there's a darn good chance the garlic will be ready to harvest by the last regular day of school—especially if you pick a site with full sun, mulch the soil with shredded leaves after the ground freezes hard for the winter and then get the mulch off as soon as things warm up in the Spring. And you can harvest the tasty 'scapes' that appear atop hardneck garlic plants in May for a garlic flavored cafeteria special!

  • Pansies. Hands-down perfect! Plant them as soon as you see the first flats in garden centers in September, and enjoy the blooms and add the highly-edible flowers to school salads all fall, winter and Spring. Summer's heat will naturally burn up the cool-weather loving plants just as the school year comes to an end.

  • Lettuce, spinach and other greens. Here's some real food that's perfectly timed for growing within the school year. Sow the seeds thickly into nice prepared soil on the first possible school day and begin harvesting the baby greens 'cut and come again' style about six weeks later. Protect the plants with inexpensive and low tech floating row covers over the worst of winter, and most—maybe all—of the greens will survive into Spring (especially inside a city proper, where temps stay warmer). The plants will really begin to take off in size again around April. Then, like pansies, they'll naturally burn up in the summer heat just as the school year comes to an end.
The requested 'vegetables and herbs'? Sorry, but that's summertime thinking in a wintertime world. Yes, some herbs ARE perennial, but that just means they won't (or shouldn't) die over the winter; they're still pretty much crops of summer when it comes to harvesting. The plants I've recommended will provide lots to look at and eat; and they'll teach kids about the reality of seasonality in the plant world.

And during the actual summer itself? I'm not a fan of installing summer gardens at schools in the hope that a few kids will come back and tend them. To me, it isn't really a SCHOOL garden if only a tiny percentage of students are involved. Instead, I'd prefer that any areas that don't host Spring bulbs, asparagus and other perennials be planted in a cover crop as the school year comes to a close; something that will hold the soil in place over summer, need little to no care, and then be tilled back into the soil as a 'green manure' when the new school year opens in the fall. (Now you're teaching sustainable agriculture too; whoo! We're saving the world AND having fun!)

Oh, and that greenhouse on the roof? No pun intended, but the sky's the limit up there!

If the greenhouse is heated, you could fill it with fresh herbs for the winter—and with rescued impatiens, begonias, and pepper plants from people's summer gardens. They all thrive in bright light when they're protected from frost.

And it would be a perfect place to start new garden plants in March. Then the kids could learn the (very different) art of seed-starting, and either take the plants home for the summer or sell them as a fundraiser to buy more gardening supplies. There's never a break in the gardening season when you have a greenhouse!

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