School gardens are a popular tool used by many schools to promote healthful eating, teach nutrition lessons, and promote physical fitness by getting kids outside and active. Summer can be a challenging time for some schools that have school gardens. With schools closed for the summer, the question remains: who will maintain the garden? Who will harvest the vegetables? Without the watchful eyes of parents, students, and school staff on a daily basis, will vandalism occur?
These are all important considerations. With careful planning before school lets out, many of these questions can be addressed.
A critical first step to ensure your school garden is maintained and remains healthy and vibrant for when students return in the fall is to develop a partnership with students, families, and community members. A shared effort will ensure ownership and longevity of the program. Second, developing a summer maintenance plan will help ensure the success of your project, help deter vandalism, and provide opportunities for teaching about foods, nutrition and healthy eating.
Typical summer tasks include:
- Watering, pruning, weeding, planting
- Plant and wildlife monitoring
- Mowing around garden area
- Making repairs, repaint, or stain supplementary structures as needed such as benches, garden signage, etc.
- Conducting safety inspections of site and equipment
- If appropriate, maintaining greenhouse or supply area
- Maintaining and taking inventory of tools and equipment
- Coordinating projects/events in garden area
- Coordinate a volunteer work party before the end of the year to assign volunteers for the summer schedule
- Designate a “Head Gardener” or two to led/co-lead summer garden maintenance
- At least two people on the garden team should coordinate the plan but one should be the lead
- If your site is very large, consider dividing it up and assigning smaller sections so maintenance is not overwhelming
- Design a detailed schedule of duties and assignments that list what tasks need to be done, when, and by whom. Everyone involved should get a copy
- Make a distribute a contact list
- Recruit alternates for each week and include contact information in case of schedule changes
- Solicit help from teachers, students, maintenance staff, and volunteers
- Include the head of maintenance staff in the planning meetings. Develop a list of people that can be used as consultants for garden questions (Extension Master Gardeners, local nursery, local experts, etc.)
- Hold work days, natures nights, or special events that are fun functions for students and families
- Keep a camera handy to take pictures to document changes in the garden, the harvest, or vandalism that needs to be reported
- Report trouble spots, disease, or damage (contact Master Gardener to review)
- Keep hose, garden tools, and other equipment in a safe place
- Create a map of the site with plantings identified or have pictures of plants
Other Considerations for Summer Maintenance
Assign Families One Week to Maintain the Garden Site. Several schools have implemented successful summer maintenance schedules by assigning families and students one week during the summer to maintain the garden. Phone calls, letters home to parents asking for their support, and sign-up at your next parent/teacher meetings are good ways to let families know how they can help.
Assure all participating family members have completed the necessary background checks or security clearance. Most families working in the garden may not necessarily working with children other than their own children. Therefore criminal background checks may not be necessary. However it is important that each of the families have completed any necessary volunteer sign up procedures that specific schools require such as volunteer online applications. Be sure the principal of the school has seen and approved of the list of volunteers and the list is posted in a place where maintenance and other key school personnel have access to the list.
Arrange to Get the Water Key for Outside Hose Faucets. Remember that access to the building will be limited during the summer months. Arrange with your school principal and custodian to get keys for turning on the water when the school has closed for the summer.. Most principals and custodians are usually on-site several weeks after school closes so having access to the outside water faucets during the final weeks of summer is critical.
Set up a Locked Storage Area or Tool Box with a Combination Lock. Tools, hoses, and the water key can be stored in this area. A log sheet can be developed for families to record when they watered and weeded so the next family will know what happened in the previous week. It is also helpful to have emergency contacts such as a key volunteer or an Extension Master Gardener who can be contacted if there is a problem with the plants, safety issues, equipment break down, vandalism, etc.
Provide a Reference Notebook of Plants and Weeds in the Garden. Pictures, sketches, and/or descriptions of the plants which have been planted and their requirements for water, sun, and soil can also be collected and put in a notebook as a reference for the families who are maintaining the garden in the summer. Be sure to include pictures and sketches of weeds as well. This will help ensure that families will know which plants should be pulled.
Maintain a Journal or Notebook in the Main Office for Keeping Grounds Staff Appraised of Your Project. In order for grounds keepers to be aware of the school garden projects, it is a good idea to keep a notebook in the school office. In many schools, groundskeepers are not responsible for maintaining our school gardens; they still need to be made aware of how the garden is maintained, who maintains the garden, and when the garden is maintained. The notebook should include the following: map of the site, information on plants, a watering scheduled that is followed, spray and pesticide restraints, list of key volunteers, and an “ongoing” journal of your work and scheduled work.
Encourage and Support Student Teams to volunteer. This is an excellent project for a team of students in your school to help maintain the garden under the supervision of a screened volunteer or teacher. Many youth need to complete service hours for school, are looking for Eagle Scout projects or independent study options. Check in with the school counselors for high school and middle school if they have any youth who might be looking for these types of opportunities.
Keep the Neighbors Informed. Don’t forget to keep the neighbors informed of the happenings at the garden site. They can help keep a watchful on your garden during those summer days when there are few people around. A letter or flyer from your students describing their project and how the neighbors can help is a great way to get the neighbors on board. Include directions and contact information for who/when to call if there is a problem.
Remember, this is not the project of a single volunteer or an individual teacher. It takes many people to sustain a successful schoolyard project. By involving the school community and the community at large, the long term success and sustainability of a project will improve significantly. When youth, families and community members come together everyone wins Instead of returning to school in the fall where students are faced with the prospect of finding a bare garden full of weeds, students instead return to a beautiful and well maintained garden flush with vegetables and other edible foods ready for a fall harvest.
For more school garden resources, click here!
Maureen Hosty, Oregon State University Extension