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Growing a School Garden During the School Year

Question. Dear Mr. McGrath: Every year, eighth graders in our school do a final project that reflects who we are and what we believe in. Mine is working with a landscaper whose daughters attend our school to start a 'Roots and Shoots' garden. These gardens involve older members of the community (the 'Roots') and children (the 'Shoots') learning from each other by growing vegetables, flowers, and herbs together. The garden should function as an outdoor classroom that children will use for subjects like math, science, literature, and writing during the school year. For example, if the third grade is learning about colonial America they might start a colonial herb garden and learn how people in colonial America used the herbs.

We plan to make an existing garden bigger to accommodate these additional uses—hopefully finishing construction by the end of this school year. I was wondering if you could help us with some ideas on what you think we should and shouldn't include. Sincerely,
    ---Evan, at St. Anne's School in Annapolis
Answer. I get dozens of requests like this every year, but most are from teachers and administrators, not actual students. And I'm very familiar with the idea of eighth grade class members providing a 'going away gift' to their school—but this is a far cry from the typical new bench or tree.

Now, if there wasn't a landscaper already involved, I'd try to move Evan indoors. One of the problems with {quote} "school gardens" in most of the country is that the school year and outdoor gardening season are mutually exclusive; there's just not a lot you can grow outside in the winter in most areas. The kids could install some plants in a garden in May and harvest a few last runs when school resumes in September, but somebody else would have to care for the plants all summer long. And the garden would only be good for about six weeks of useful outdoor experience—and all of that at the very beginning and end of the school year. (This puts any Spring planting into potential conflict with final exams and other end-of-the-year stuff.)

That's why I like indoor projects—like building and maintaining a big worm bin that the kids can use to turn their food scraps into high quality worm castings. Or outfitting a small area with artificial lights to grow house plants over the winter and garden starts in the Spring.

But if we're outside, I'm thinking asparagus bed. There's a lot of hard work involved in the construction, but a professional will have the equipment to do the job right. And asparagus is pretty much 'once and done'; you install the crowns in the Spring, which fits Evan's timetable perfectly, and you leave behind something that should produce teachable moments—and good eating—for decades.

The shoots that should emerge from the buried crowns late this school year will be a great sign of things to come. Never harvested, these 'first year spears' will collect solar energy to fuel the roots for the long term, becoming decorative fronds over the summer that the returning kids can examine and write about in September.

Then, on nice days over the winter, the kids can go out, carefully remove the old fronds and mulch the bed with shredded leaves. The next Spring, they'll learn that they have to resist the urge to enjoy this run of spears as well, so the plants can grow big and strong. This invites lessons on photosynthesis and what the roots are doing underground. Maybe the kids can draw and perform what they think is happening down there.



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