Last year, I started a garden at our school in a small town in Northern New York as part of a program out of Cooperative Extension. I was nominated to lead a 4-H group at a meeting I didn’t attend. I consider myself an enthusiastic and somewhat knowledgeable gardener. A leader of small children? I was ill-prepared – and terrified!
With the help of friends, I muddled through and managed to create a delightful garden (in my humble opinion) where at least some of the thirty kids aged 5-10 learned something about gardening they didn’t know before. But it was a struggle, and I sensed there had to be a better way. So when my sister asked me to review How to Grow a School Garden: A Complete Guide for Parents and Teachers, I was curious if their experience was anything like mine.
This is a book about how the authors started and grew their school garden at an urban schoolyard in San Francisco. It talks about their experiences, and offers tips and pointers, some of which I found extremely valuable. But one can’t help but get the feeling that these authors have never left their community, or have any connection with the process of starting a garden in, let’s say, rural Northern New York. For example, on the back cover, it touts “Teach in the garden classroom year round”. Most of the school year, our garden is under a giant pile of snow that the plow dumps on it, which the kids love more than any other piece of playground equipment.
The authors devote a lot of time to discussing fundraising strategies and garnering support. The garden design discussed in the book seemed incredibly elaborate, and probably did need a lot of money to build. They also paid someone to serve as a garden coordinator, and suggested hiring a landscape architect. I think more time could have been devoted to a different scenario of school garden, one built by a few volunteers and a few families and businesses donating time and materials. We built a 32′ x 52′ garden with a periphery of raised beds for about $300, with donated leaves, rotten pumpkins, manure, dirt, wood chips, etc., and we raised money for seeds by selling seeds as a fundraiser. Pretty simple.
I located most of my design ideas on the internet, and from books on children’s gardens from the library. Yet I found the design section of this book oddly lacking in — designs! Maybe they thought that was for a different book, or if they put in enough links in the back of the book, you could figure something out. In fact, they don’t talk much about the specifics of actual gardening. I think they assume a certain level of knowledge. They do talk about design, and offer a few caveats and must haves, but it almost feels as though they are talking around it.
As any gardener knows, starting a garden is easy compared to the aftermath of maintaining it. This is where I feel this book really shines – focusing on how you plan a garden to keep it going! While we chose the route in our garden to “build it and they will come” we all know how fast a garden can become a weedy, neglected eyesore. The authors emphasize that the garden needs to be used by many different groups, the more the better. If there is only one group or person involved in the garden, the single group can easily dissolve and no one is left using the garden. They give strategies for getting teachers on board (start with one class, and build on their success), with tips on finding curriculum that fits in with their teaching standard requirements. And my favorite part was the tips on managing classes of kids in the garden. I really wish I had known a few of their pointers last spring, like having one area just for digging, and making rainmakers for kids to water with, for example.
Although sometimes I felt like the authors were gardening on another planet, overall there is much to recommend this book. Use it as one resource as you begin your journey towards growing your own school garden – it is far from a “complete guide” as the title suggests, but has invaluable tips and information that I wish I had had before I broke ground in our garden.