Many students participate in after school activities to extend their learning opportunities and spend more time with friends during the day. After school garden clubs provide a great way for students to learn about gardening and gain hands-on experience growing their own food, and tasting the fruits (and vegetables!) of their labor.
A successful after school garden club experience requires planning and patience, and most of all, a spirit of adventure. Novice and experienced gardeners know that no matter how well you plan, Mother Nature will add her own variables like scorching hot days, cabbage worms, and even freezing rain. Here are some steps to take to help make your after school garden club a fun learning—and eating—experience for all.
Pick your space: Every garden needs sun, soil, and water. Pick your ideal sun or shade garden location on school grounds, giving thought to your need to deliver items like loads of soil and seedlings, and your access to drinkable water. Other things to consider are whether you need space to push a wheelbarrow, and if you have storage nearby for garden tools. Give yourself time for construction of any raised or in-ground beds, and for bed preparation. Be sure to place container and in-ground gardens out of the way of recess activities like bouncing balls and active feet, and away from trash receptacles that may attract other critters.
Pick your growing season: Decide if you want to host a fall garden club, a spring garden club, or a year-round club, and decide how frequently your club will meet. During the warmer gardening months, a lot can happen in a week! Pick your crops based on season, and length of growing time. Students will be most excited to see crops go from seedlings to fruit stage, and then to harvest. Remember that most students are not in school during the heavy summer growing season, so plan accordingly. Youth gardening curricula, and your local Master Gardeners, are great resources for helping you decide what is best to plant.
Water: Your garden will need water—lots of water. Make sure that you have access to a hose that provides drinkable water throughout the garden season. It’s a good idea to create a watering schedule and have backups. All it takes is a couple of hot days to dry up the garden…and your harvest. Remember that watering will need to occur more frequently than your club meets, ideally once per day during the growing season. Recess during the school day could allow students access to the garden for watering outside of club time. Check with your school’s administration to see if that is a possibility.
Invite many friends: A garden thrives when it is well tended. Garden clubs are no exception—a successful garden club needs energetic participants. Gardening experience is helpful, but not nearly as necessary as enthusiasm and a willingness to work hard and get your hands dirty. A good ratio is one adult for every 5-6 students. This ratio should provide time for some one-on-one instruction, and provides oversight for proper use of garden tools. For larger gardens, more friends are better! Tasks like watering and weeding can get overwhelming if there are not enough helpers. Contact your local Master Gardeners for gardening expertise and hands-on educational help.
Safety first: All in-ground garden spaces should have the soil tested for lead and other contaminants prior to planting. One exception is if you are starting a container garden and using bagged soil and organic matter that you know to be free of contaminants. When adding soil to your garden beds, be sure it is an appropriate soil mix for growing produce. Also consider whether your garden needs fencing to keep out deer, rabbits, raccoons, or other critters that enjoy fresh produce. Check with your Master Gardeners for advice on any insect and disease control measures. You will want to ensure that anything you put on the garden is safe for children to handle, and that the produce will be safe to eat. Use of manure and pesticides are not acceptable practices for youth gardens.
Gather supplies: Make a wish list of your garden supplies and circulate it to your school community. You will likely get many hand shovels, rakes, and buckets. School fundraisers are another great way to get funds for larger items like wood for bed construction, wheelbarrows, hoses, and fencing. Local businesses may be willing to donate supplies, and many organizations have grant funding available for school garden projects. While there are many fancy gardening tools out there, hands are perhaps the most effective…and they are free! A minimal list to get started includes soil, seedlings/seeds, a hose, shovels, and gloves for participants.
Choose a theme: Remember that the garden is more than just a growing space—it is an outdoor classroom. Many students enjoy growing gardens that have themes. Popular ones include pizza gardens, herb gardens, butterfly/pollinator gardens, and native plant gardens. You can also create an ABC garden, a math garden, storybook garden, or international garden to reinforce classroom concepts. Have students decorate the garden with creative signage and don’t forget to include seating so that the students have a welcoming space to learn and explore.
Celebrate the garden: No matter how big or how small, a garden naturally attracts visitors. Be sure to include student-led garden tours at school events throughout the year. Proud students will be your best recruiters for future club participants, and for adult helpers and volunteers. Don’t worry if it doesn’t look “picture perfect”—school gardens are as unique as the students that create them.
Manage expectations: Gardening is a wonderful learning experience. It is also an exercise in patience, trial and error, and working with uncontrollable variables like the weather. Visit other school gardens for ideas and inspiration, and get the students involved from the start. You may grow a bumper crop, or you may get a few tiny carrots. And that’s okay--know that whatever your students cultivate will be a worthwhile learning experience.
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