By Laura Mcguiness, VRG Intern
When I decided to restore my school garden, I was lucky enough to already have somebody who possessed a lot of useful knowledge about gardening: my mom. If you are thinking about starting a garden and are not blessed with a friend or family member that possesses knowledge about gardens, start researching!
Information about starting a school garden is available online, in bookstores, and even in libraries. Most public libraries are free, so stop by your local one, sign up for a membership, and head on over to the 635’s (The Dewey Decimal classification for horticulture!).
Organizing a Group of People
It is easy to decide to restore/start a garden in your school or community. I just woke up one day and decided I was tired of seeing that once-glorious plot of land sitting neglected behind our biology building. I also decided that I was sick of staring at the school’s only vegan lunch option: peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. That is when I got the idea to start a school garden. I could simultaneously encourage others to grow vegetables as well as prove to the school district that students really did care about healthy lifestyles and would appreciate a more vegan and vegetarian-friendly lunch option.
Once this idea had taken shape, I started brainstorming how I could make it happen. I figured it was definitely a viable option; I was already farther ahead than most with my garden-knowledgeable mother. What I didn’t realize however, was how difficult it would be to find a group of people who were interested and reliable to keep the garden prospering.
What I decided to do was propose my idea to the president of the high school’s Environmental Club. I knew that by gaining her approval, I would gain the approval of the club’s constituents as well. By doing this, I was able to integrate my garden project into the club, thus gaining a group of people who were already interested in environmental/health issues and would be willing to make this restoration happen. I started attending the Environmental Club meetings every week, promoting my idea, and working with the club’s overseers to start and fund the restoration process. Eventually, I was granted a hardworking group of individuals who were eager and willing to get this garden started.
Whether you’re starting a garden in your high school or your community, it’s necessary to find a group of people that possess the same ideals needed to carry out a garden. At your school it may be an Environmental Club, a Horticulture Club, Botany Club, or a random club that has members that just really like to garden. Talk to them! Write up a proposal stating exactly what you would like to do in the garden and pass it around.
It’s also important to receive support from a teacher. When a teacher is behind a student project, it gains recognition from the school (and possibly even the district) as being a legitimate task. The teacher can always potentially act as an authority figure, as well. This can prove useful if the project gets too difficult for a group of students to handle by themselves.
So if you’re thinking about starting a garden, it’s important to look for people who would be eager to work in that environment. Look towards a group of people, your friends, or a club and start recruiting others. Don’t forget to ask a teacher to oversee your project, though; you may need an authority figure to legitimize your up-and-coming garden.
What Do I Need?
- Compost pile
- Composting is a way to recycle garden waste while providing important soil amendments that are necessary to grow strong and healthy plants.
- There are many different ways to start a compost pile, but the easiest way would be to mix equal parts green or wet material and brown or dry material. Water and fluff the pile to add air, and leave it alone. Here you have a compost pile, and when it begins to take on a dark brown color with a crumbly texture and an earthy aroma, it’s ready for use! If you see large chunks still left in the pile, remove them and save them for your next batch of compost.
- When the compost is ready to use, you have a variety of options to choose from when deciding how to work it into your garden.
- You can spread it over your top layer of soil.
- You can mix the compost with the soil.
- You can plant directly in compost.
- Raised planters are nice because they raise the plants off of the ground and minimize weeds (which can really be a pain in the neck).
- There are two types of raised planters, one cheaper than the other but less efficient.
- Raised beds – dig 4-8 inches into the ground and create mounds of dirt where you can plant. (This is much cheaper to build than the planter boxes, but it is not necessarily the preferred option.)
- Planter boxes – obtain pre-made planters or build your own using donated recycled wood. (This takes a little bit of time and money, but is worth it in the long run.)
- Every garden needs tools, but they can be really expensive! There are a few ways you can obtain tools while spending minimal amounts of your time, money, and energy.
- Ask neighborhood stores to donate their tools or money to the cause.
- Ask fellow students to buy one tool each.
- Ask for students to lend their parent’s tools for use in the garden (with the parent’s permission, of course.)
How Do I Start Planting?
- Clear the land.*
- It is important to start with a clean, flat, and weeded area. If your area is especially overgrown, host a weeding party! You can provide lemonade, music, even food, and pull some weeds while having fun.
- Once you weed the site (and have fun doing it), water it, keep your eye out for any remaining weeds to sprout, and pull them as well!
- Make sure there are no weeds or rocks in the soil.
- Add in your compost to provide amendments.
- This is the fun part! But sometimes (like in my case) it can be frustrating, as well. When I started this step of my garden restoration project I was dreaming of all the different plants I could grow for the autumn planting season. Unfortunately, I had to learn a little lesson about growing seasons.
- Take a look at: http://www.thevegetablegarden.info/planting-schedules. This website will tell you the planting schedules around the world for different types of vegetables.
- In my area, we had a local organization called Veggielution that had their own community garden. My school was able to receive seedlings as donations from them which we eagerly planted in our garden. Other students bought their own seeds and raised them until they were ready to plant.
- When it is time to plant, organize a day where everybody will go out to the garden and gently plant their vegetables. This is usually a day of great pride and the once barren area starts looking like a real garden.
- Take this opportunity to create a watering and caring schedule for the garden. Have people sign up and give five minutes of their time on one particular day of the week to come in and care for the garden. If you’re comfortable with it, give them your contact information so they can contact you if need be.
- Make sure the people volunteering have been taught the proper way to water (low pressure, close to the root. Not on top of the plant or directly over it.)
- Make sure those volunteering know the difference between weeds and plants. It is inevitable that you or one of your volunteers will accidentally tear out a plant they assumed was a weed, but try to minimize that by providing them pictures of common weeds compared to pictures of plants growing in your garden.
- Discuss the idea of giving and receiving. It is common courtesy in a school/community garden that if you take a vegetable, you give a little bit of your time to the garden. Don’t just break in and take something! Do a little weeding or watering first.
How to Harvest Your Plants
You will know it is time to harvest your plants when you start seeing vegetables growing. Do a bit of research to determine when a particular vegetable is ripe and ready to harvest. When the majority of the vegetables are ready, organize a harvesting day. Invite people to come and pick vegetables. But remember, there is a safe and a dangerous way to harvest your crops.
- Twist gently. Never pull. If you are removing a tomato, twist the stem gently until it breaks OR use a pair of small gardening shears to cut the stem.
- If you are harvesting something like chard, kale, or lettuce: pick the leaves on the outside first, not the inside.
- It is important to research this and learn for yourself, as well as teach others, the proper way to harvest a plant without causing it harm.
What to Do With the Food
Now that you have all of this food, what will you do with it? My school had a few different ideas:
- Take the vegetables home and make your family a delicious vegan dinner!
- Take the vegetables home and make a dish to bring into a class potluck (have each student make a vegan dish using the vegetables they took home.) This would introduce others to the tastiness of vegan food.
- Host a school-wide fundraiser by selling vegetables picked from your garden. (This would also be a really great way to advertise your garden, potentially get more supporters, and promote a vegetable-based lifestyle.)
- Start a booth at your neighborhood farmers market. This would be a great way to get in touch with the community and raise funds for your garden in the process.
- Give the vegetables away to the community! Sometimes, just holding a vegetable stand in your neighborhood, donating the vegetables to a homeless shelter, or giving them to a person in need is even more satisfying that making money or eating it yourself.
Be creative! Use this garden as a way to network and promote vegetarian and vegan-living by proving to people it is not that hard to grow great-tasting vegetables!
*Be careful when clearing the land. If there was a garden planted in this area previously, you may still have valuable vegetables and fruits that you don’t want to mistake for weeds and tear out. Look carefully at what you are pulling out and be mindful to identify and mark off any plants you do not want touched.