Four Ways to Labor Less in the School Garden

It’s Labor Day. That means no school. Great, right? Well, yes…except I still need to water the newly planted seeds in the Pueblo Vista Culinary Garden. As I sit sipping coffee on this lovely sunny morning, it’s easy to forget that those tiny bundles of potential life are waiting for a drink. I think to myself, They can go one day without water, can’t they? Technically, yes, since they haven’t even germinated yet. But, if we want fresh cilantro for the Harvest Festival, then I need to get them watered before it gets any warmer out.

Anyone who has managed a school garden is familiar with this internal monologue. While it is tempting to take a day off, there is no such thing as a carefree school garden. However, there are a few ways to labor less in the school garden.

  1. Build a reliable team. The keyword here is reliable. In my years supporting school gardens in Napa, I’ve recruited school garden volunteers at every possible turn: Back-to-School night and Parent Faculty Club meetings, and through numerous flyers, newsletters, or social media posts. Each time, I collect between one and thirty signatures, but only a handful of people ever participate consistently. The sooner you find out who these folks are, the better. I start by inviting a few families to work with me in the garden during regularly scheduled sessions. I gauge their comfort level with certain tasks and then ask them to do those tasks on a day when I’m not there. It is important to spread the responsibility across a few families, not just one. Before you know it, a small community of committed volunteers develops.
  2. Invest in a combination lock. Although it may be contrary to school or district policy, a combination lock instills a sense of trust within the community of volunteers. It says, I want you to feel a part of this garden. It also allows me to have a back-up plan if I can’t make it to the garden one day. I only give the combination to families who have come to work with me in the garden at least one time. When I change the combination, I wait to see families in person to give them the new combo. This strategy ensures that I am communicating with them and they with me.
  3. Lure fellow staff to help harvest. Cherry tomatoes are so prolific right now I could probably harvest at least a pint a day from our two plants. To save time and share the harvest, I invite staff to the garden every 7-10 days to help.With 3-5 sets of hands, only takes 10 minutes to pick the tiny red globes from the vine. I call this the”Little Red Hen” philosophy…you have to give to get. It saves me time and the staff enjoy the produce.  Everyone wins!
  4. Select annuals wisely. Few school gardens have a full-time coordinator or educator, so it is important to balance the number and types of plants you grow. While it might look amazing to have eight or ten raised beds planted with annual summer crops, it is very difficult to keep up with the plenty and even more challenging to turn those beds quickly enough for fall plantings.  To make the most of our space at Pueblo Vista Magnet School, we’ve panted perennial strawberries and herbs in a few beds. We’re also adding more fruit trees and ornamentals. This year, I’m designating a bed for “Staff Picks.” (Get it? Staff picks the crop, but also picks the bounty.) All of these strategies reduce the labor-intensive annuals.

Following these four simple tips will grow a community that turns the school garden into a labor of love.

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