One of the most perplexing challenges of the school garden is the academic calendar. Even in climates with a year-round growing season, summer is usually the most bountiful time of year. But summer is also when students are scarce. How can you ensure that the summer harvest doesn’t become a maintenance burden?
Select varieties that mature slowly. Unless you frequent out-of-the way nurseries or peruse obscure seed catalogs, you may not be familiar with the wide variety of plants available. I recently shopped at the UC Master Gardeners of Napa County tomato sale and was amazed at the abundance of different tomatoes! The days to maturity ranged from 57 to 96. If planted on May 1st, a hybrid Sun Gold tomato could be producing by July 4th and likely be done producing by Labor Day. An heirloom Beefsteak, on the other hand, would be reaching peak production on Labor Day, just in time for the back-to-school salsa lessons.
Whether growing tomatoes, corn, beans, or squash, choose a variety with a long maturation, ideally 85 days or more. In addition, consider putting plants in the ground later in the season. This approach is especially useful for directly sown seeds, but is harder to do with plants purchased at the nursery. However, you can buy a little more time by “potting up” a nursery plant before putting it in the ground (e.g., transplanting a 4″ pot into a 1/2 gallon pot). Finally, try succession sowing (staggering planting by a few weeks) or using a garden planning calculator, so that the harvest doesn’t all come in at once.
Sow a summer cover crop. Cover cropping isn’t just for winter. In fact, many farmers are switching to rotations of plantings to build soil fertility and mixing cover crops to diversify plant communities. Much better than bare soil, cover crops can suppress weeds and promote biodiversity. Buckwheat, for instance, shades weeds and provides forage for bees, while also enhancing phosphorous availability. Cowpeas are a nitrogen-fixing legume that is drought tolerant. Beneficial insects feed on the flowers while you boost the nutrient availability for a fall planting. Sow a summer cover crop mix for a natural and appealing way to maintain soil health and reduce summer maintenance.
Lend, rent, or auction off a bed. Many school gardens are maintained by “Garden Guardians” – parents and children who volunteer to water, weed, and harvest over the summer, but allowing a family to use a bed for an entire growing season is a great way to attract a summer caretaker. Of course any volunteer should always get to enjoy some of the harvest (See Labor Less, Sept. 2016), getting freedom to plant and pick what they want can be a huge lure for a family or neighbor.
Chances are, anyone in the community who gardens at a school is going be extra vigilant, show up more than necessary, and complete more the minimal tasks. This strategy works especially well for a family that does not have space to grow because they rent or live in an apartment. Invite another grower to utilize a portion of the school garden in the summer, such as or a civic group that grows for the local food bank.
The fact that most schools are still tied to the agrarian calendar is a conundrum for school garden enthusiasts. Being strategic about summer plantings can dramatically reduce the trouble of keeping the garden growing all summer long.