Solving the summer maintenance challenge

It's a reasonable question from school garden admirers and skeptics alike: what happens to the garden during summer vacation?

The answer? We're working on that.  So much of school gardening is an experiment, a never-finished work-in-progress (which, of course, is part of why it is such a powerful, engaging educational tool) and the question of summer maintenance fits right in with the theme. The ever-evolving list of solutions is creative, exciting, and always welcome to newcomers. 
School gardens often follow one of two tracks during the summer: Drawing additional activity to the garden, or planning for a low-maintenance "resting" garden until school resumes in fall. Mixing techniques is, of course, common and encouraged. Here are some of the best ideas we've seen yet:

Ideas for Active Summer Gardens

Summer school or camp programs: Create one, or adapt existing programs to incorporate the garden. Incorporate classroom activities, as well as extra time for cooking, exploring, and reflecting. 
Students volunteers or interns: A great way to keep students involved, especially those that really want to dig in beyond short classroom hours. Works well if there is an adult volunteer or staff member available to coordinate students.

Other student organizations: Partner with a nearby community center, Boys and Girls Club, 4-H group, Scouting troop, day care, or summer camp. Have one group adopt the garden for the entire summer, or have groups sign up for specific weeks. 
Adopt-a-plot: Make garden beds available for families to "adopt" for the summer. You may allow families to keep produce or donate it to pantries, or plant things of their own, as long as the plot is in good shape in the fall.  

Weekly volunteers: Create a sign-up sheet for parents, teachers, community members, and Master Gardeners who want to volunteer. Leave specific instructions for each week or time slot. Sign-up Genius is a great way to stay organized.
Ideas for Summer Gardens at Rest

Plant spring and fall crops: In Wisconsin, many annual plants  can be harvested before the end of school in spring, and planted again when school begins at the end of August. Try: radishes, leaf lettuce, spinach, cilantro, and green garlic (plant full bulbs in October, harvest like a bunching onion in spring). Photo at right: a radish "snake" with raisin eyes and chive hair. 

Plant edible perennials: They come up early in spring, and herbs will last until fall. Try: asparagus, rhubarb, sun-chokes, and herbs such as oregano, thyme, mint, chives, and sorrel. Consider investing in fruit trees for fall harvesting!  

Plant low maintenance crops: Anything that is fairly vigorous and drought tolerant is likely to survive with little care and provide a nice fall crop if it gets a good start in spring. Try: tomatoes, tomatillos, ground cherries, potatoes, kale, swiss chard, pumpkins and winter squash, dry beans, and sunflowers. 

Consider drip irrigation: Investing once saves time and water for years. Small timers can be installed for automatic watering. Dripworks offers how-to materials as well as a discount for schools; home garden centers often have basic supplies and advice. A good candidate for small grants or fundraiser funds. 

Mulch: Use straw, hay, or leaf mulch 2-4 inches thick under well-weeded plants or empty beds to help keep in moisture and minimize weeds.

Cover crop: No space is too small. Cover crops improve soil and out-compete most weeds. An oats and peas combination is a good starter. Learn more here.

Funding for this project was provided by the UW School of Medicine and Public Health from the Wisconsin Partnership Program.  

Resources & Events

Summer in the School Garden: A resource for working with volunteers to maintain your school garden. This pdf contains tips for recruiting and organizing volunteers, as well as templates for sign up sheets, maintenance tasks, signs to guide volunteers, and more. Short and easy to read. This really has it all!
Green & Healthy Schools Institute. A neat event from GHS Wisconsin this August!
Webinar: Summertime in the School Garden. In this EdWeb production, "Danielle Fleury and Emily Jackson share examples of how school gardens across the country are connecting to important summer feeding program sites and other out-of-school educational opportunities. Attendees also learn about how Cooperative Extension, Master Gardeners, YMCAs, universities, parent coalitions and more can connect their school garden to the community during the summer break." 
Recruiting and Coordinating Volunteers. Check out this list of Wisconsin Master Gardener Associations by county. Try websites like Sign-up Genius and Cozi to coordinate volunteer scheduling, reminders, and tasks. 
Wisconsin Farm to School Nutrition Program Toolkit Don't miss this one - it's got tons of great information and free resources!

School Garden Success Stories

We'd love to hear from you!  Our newsletters will continue to profile stories of Wisconsin educators and their youth gardens. What have been your biggest challenges and successes? What makes your garden unique and worthwhile?  If you're not sure where to begin, you can follow our story guide.  If you've already written a blog post or article, you can share that, too.  Share here.
Summer in the Horicon Garden

The Horicon High School Garden has it all: 1.5 acres full of sweet corn, squash, beans, peas, carrots, onions, radishes, peppers, tomatoes, potatoes, herbs, kale, lettuce, spinach, cauliflower, broccoli, kohlrabi, garlic, pumpkins and strawberries. 

This farm-sized garden is the ambitious project of students in the school’s FFA and agriculture programs.  Students choose the seeds, care for transplants in the school greenhouse, and participate in hands-on lessons covering topics such as companion planting and pest management.  In the fall, garden produce is used in school lunches.

The school district has an exploratory agriculture class required for all seventh grade students, as well as a horticulture elective for high school students.  If this were the end of the story, Horicon’s garden would already be a phenomenal program.
However, the most inspiring chapters come in the months of June, July, and August.  No school faces an easy task when it comes to summer garden maintenance, but managing over 65,000 square feet of growing space feels a little mind-boggling, even for the seasoned gardener. Now in its second season, the garden’s presence in the cafeteria has drawn more students to the garden, making their way willingly back to school during summer vacation.
“We didn’t have a lot of help from students when we first started the program,” said agriculture teacher and FFA advisor Alice Doudna, “but after we had the food in the lunch program, they were like, ‘this is way better than the stuff that is shipped in, we want to help.’” 
Doudna encouraged the students to sign up for the two week summer class she was organizing, called Delicious Nutritious Horicon – modeled after the Delicious Nutritious Wisconsin program, but tailored for local fare.  Twelve students signed up – quadrupling last year’s number – and volunteered to work in the garden every morning for the remainder of the summer, after class was over. 
“They told me they just sit at home watching T.V. anyway, and that they might as well be doing something,” Doudna said.  Students volunteers go home with more than dirt under their fingernails: for every five hours they log, Doudna makes sure they get a bag full of veggies.  The rest of the summer’s harvest is sold by students at the local farmer’s market, and the profits are used to purchase next year’s seeds and supplies.
The FFA program is also crucial to the garden’s success. Sixteen FFA students from Horicon are currently working toward proficiency in horticulture, a skill for which they must log 100 hours and show competency in at least ten garden-related skills. The FFA is also able to hire a student Garden Manager, as well as a Greenhouse Manager, who play a big role in weeding, watering, bookkeeping, and other essential tasks.  These students receive 10% of the garden’s vegetable and plant sale profits as a scholarship when they graduate, and the skills added to their FFA resume have the potential to help them garner additional scholarships in the future.

While not every school has a FFA and an agriculture program, the story of Horicon’s garden is universal in that the energy behind the garden comes from the kids. When asked about the potential of adult volunteers, Doudna stuck to the principles she follows: “I try to have it be all student-led. They’re very proud of it.  It’s their project, and I don’t want them to be intimidated by a bunch of adults being there.”
Sorry, adults – guess you’ll have to meet them at the farmer’s market!


WSGI Receives Community-University Partnership Award 

On June 3rd, WSGI was honored to receive a Community-University Partnership Award from UW-Madison. The award recognizes WSGI and the UW School of Medicine and Public Health as an "exemplary partnership," making significant contributions to the good of the Wisconsin community. WSGI was nominated by the Wisconsin Partnership Program, which stated, "Your work - developing an infrastructure to support youth gardening and garden-based education across the state - is a critical step in helping to reduce obesity rates in Wisconsin." Thank you, WPP and UW-Madison - we look forward to two more years of successful collaboration!

Growing Minds Garden Course for Educators

A few spots remain in this hands-on educator course from Community GroundWorks. Participants will learn more about facilitating a school garden, from design and maintenance to engaging students with garden curriculum.  July 21-25, 2014. Graduate credit available. Register here.
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                                                                                                              For those new to WSGI, we couldn't leave out these amazing resources. "Got Dirt?" will walk you through starting a school garden, while "Got Veggies?" will help you implement a garden-based nutrition curriculum.  "Cultivating Childhood Wellness through Gardening" is an online training that will help you establish and utilize a school garden.  You can watch the entire training or select specific chapters.

Find them all here.

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