NOTE: This post was written by Chelsey Simpson, who is the membership and communications associate for the National Farm to School Network and an advocate for local food systems and community gardening.
Do you remember when you first discovered the magic of seeds–endosperms and embryos, a tiny beansprout uncurling on your classroom’s windowsill? You can share that magic by volunteering for a school garden, even if that means starting one from scratch. School gardens bring science to life every day, feeding kids’ natural curiosityand connecting them to their food in a deeper, more meaningful way. Studies show that students who are exposed to gardens and other Farm to School activities are more likely to make healthy food choices and try new foods.
Schools present special challenges for new and experienced gardeners alike. Working around summer vacation, creating relevant teaching opportunities and selecting low-maintenance plants are all important considerations in school garden projects. There are no wrong answers–and a lot depends on your climate and soil conditions–but some plants fit the needs of school gardens better than others. Here are five of our favorites.
Radishes are fast. Some varieties are ready to eat just three weeks after the seeds are sown, making them a satisfying first plant for beginners. Radishes are also easy to harvest, and kids will have fun pulling the whole plant out of the ground while learning about root systems. Like all of the plants on this list, they are easy to eat raw. Their sharp flavor can be toned down by grating them into a slaw or pairing them with a dipping sauce.
Many greens and lettuce varieties work well in school gardens because they are less frost-sensitive and can be planted in the spring and fall. Rainbow chard is an especially nice choice because a single seed pack will yield a neon display in shades of yellow, pink, green and orange. It is also very hearty and will continue to produce through the summer and fall if it is harvested regularly. The seeds are relatively large, making them easy for small fingers to handle. Mature leaves usually taste best sautéed, but small, young leaves are good in a salad.
There are two basic types of peas, those that we shell (English peas) and those we eat whole, pod and all (sugar snap peas). Fast-growing, fun to harvest, easy to eat, and tasty, peas are always a big hit. Most varieties like to climb, so they might need more infrastructure than your other plants, but they aren’t difficult to care for and do well in cool, spring weather. Peas are a great example of a delicious and nourishing seed; use them to discuss the lifecycle of plants and all their edible parts.
Cherry or grape tomatoes
Tomatoes can be tricky since they usually ripen during the heat of summer when school is not in session. A truly successful tomato crop will require summer volunteers who can keep the plants alive until kids return in August or September. If that’s possible, however, tomatoes will continue to bear fruit until the first frost. Why grape or cherry tomatoes? Because they’re easier to grow, bear more individual fruit (which means more students can participate in the harvest) and are fun to eat. Of this list they are the only fruit, which completes the lesson about the different edible parts of plants.
If you are short on resources (space, time, money or water) herbs might be the way to go. Some herbs, like mint, are so easy they verge on weed status, elbowing their way into other garden beds and taking over. Basil, parsley and oregano are other good bets, and sage, rosemary and even lavender grow well in drier climates. Herbs are also great for engaging all five senses, and harvesting even a small amount can flavor a dish for a whole classroom.
These are just a few of the plants that work well in school gardens. There are lots of online resources to help you plan your garden and select plants , but often the best information is LOCAL. Contact your National Farm to School Network state lead or your county’s cooperative extension office for more tips and information about Farm to School and gardening. Locally owned garden stores are also a great source when it comes to selecting plants to suite your climate.
Don’t forget to engage students in the planning process! Older students can undertake soil testing, micro-climate analysis and garden construction projects, while younger kids list their favorite veggies by color and calculate how much space a row of peas will need to grow.
And everyone, of course, can enjoy the magic of seeds.
For more information about starting a school garden, register for the National Farm to School Network’s free webinar, “School Gardens vs. Summer Vacation.” Farm to School is broadly defined as a program that connects schools (K-12) and local farms with the objectives of serving healthy meals in school cafeterias, improving student nutrition, providing agriculture, health and nutrition education opportunities, and supporting local and regional farmers. The National Farm to School Network supports the implementation of Farm to School by offering training and technical assistance, information services, networking, and support in policy, media and marketing, and research activities.
All photos courtesy of Stock.XCHNG.