Make a List, Check it Twice: How to Keep Everyone Busy at a Garden Work Party

Yesterday, we held the inaugural school garden work party for the 2017-18 school year. Hoping to harvest a new crop of parent volunteers, we spread the word early and often. The payoff was tremendous! We had nine families and three staff members for a total of 24 busy gardeners.

Thanks to one of these dedicated families, we have a permanent whiteboard/display case in our garden (See Grateful Gardening, November 2016). After this feature was installed, I started using it to write the weekly “To Do” list. As people arrive, I invite them to select from the list based on their knowledge, skill, or interest for the day. This way, experienced gardeners can “dig right in,” so to speak. It also frees me up to explain tasks to less experienced gardeners.

Although I sometimes feel like I’m not doing any gardening, John Fisher, Director of Partnerships and Programs at Life Lab, endorses this approach:

If you are running the workday, don’t expect to get much garden work done yourself. As the leader of workdays I find myself acting mainly as a conductor, making sure everyone is paired with the best job for them, and looking ahead to see who can do what next.  ~ John Fisher, Steps to a Successful Garden Work Day

I had an ambitious list for a three-hour session, so I separated the tasks into “adult-level” and “kid-friendly” jobs. I have a mom and daughter team that is very familiar with our garden, so they are good at working independently or leading others. This time around, mom efficiently replanted a cilantro bed while her daughter taught a new family to harvest potatoes. As I circulated to provide encouragement or guidance, I heard all of my favorite refrains. Here are just a few, along with an explanation of why I loved hearing it:

“Miss Carrie, can I pull out this volunteer squash?,”                 ~Charlie, a 2nd grader. 

Can you tell which plant Charlie was referring to?

“Of course, Charlie, but how did you know it was a volunteer?,” I asked him. He told me because it didn’t look like any of the plants near it in the bed and it was the only one of it’s kind. When I asked him what made him think it was a squash plant, he explained the leaf shape and size. I decided to tell him that the misplaced plant was a hollyhock, not a squash, but all the same, it could go. I complimented his initiative and careful observation.

“Look how many bugs I collected!”                                 ~Several Students, All Day Long

Dozens upon dozens of of Harlequin Bugs.

I had been ignoring a bad infestation of Harlequin Bugs all summer. This type of Stink Bug doesn’t usually cause much damage, so I normally allow a small number of them to call our garden home. As of late, we’ve had some really warm temperatures, so these chewers reproduced like crazy and were decimating our kale. The chore of handpicking them off the leaves is tedious for one adult, but it keeps the kids engaged all day and doesn’t require much supervision. 

“This potato is HUGE!”                              ~Dirt Girl and her Treasure Hunting Partners

Bodega Reds as big as your head!

When a brand-new mom showed up with her daughters I asked her what she feels most comfortable doing in the garden. She laughed and self-identified as having a “black thumb.” I commended her for coming to the party anyway, knowing full well she did it for her twin girls. With the guidance of a Dirt Girl (See Dirt Girls to the Rescue, February, 2017), they  harvested more than five pounds of Bodega Red potatoes from a tower we planted back in May.  They dug and dug and dug, like looking for buried treasure.

At the end of the day, we checked off 95% of the chore list! Not only do we have a new set of painted rocks for insect Tic-Tac-Toe thanks to Miss Robin and Miss Natalie, our tool-toting parents accomplished some major tasks like extending irrigation to our herb barrels and moving a double-basin sink to a new location.

Thanks to all of the families for bringing their littles. You made our first garden work party a huge success! 



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