I recently stopped by Shaw VPA to take photos of their awesome stump circle – but wound up taking photos of the garden instead! It may be summer break, but this is one school garden that’s still receiving regular TLC.
It’s a tough reality that the most active growing period in the garden coincides with summer break – when teachers and students are gone. It can be challenging to keep crops thriving without a dedicated caretaker to weed and water through the hottest days of summer. So what did Shaw VPA do keep their space beautiful and thriving?
Community Makes the Difference
How did Shaw VPA keep their garden looking so loved? Simple: They got the community involved.
Second grade teacher Angela Vaughn knows that no school garden is maintenance free during the summer months, so she approached this summer with a plan. Before Shaw VPA let out for the long break, she asked students and their families to sign up to take turns weeding, watering, and harvesting in the garden throughout the summer. It’s a great system that allows students to see how ‘their’ plants are doing while sharing their enthusiasm and new-found knowledge with their families.
The garden also draws in volunteers from the local community who stop in to weed, water, and even to visit with their neighbors. Since every summer helper is encouraged to take home any of the produce they harvest, very little goes to waste – even when school’s out for summer!
Sweet Potato Challenge
Shaw VPA also makes the most of the summer growing season by participating in the Sweet Potato Challenge. This yearly competition starts in May, when teachers take their students outside to plant their slips (sweet potato starts) in the garden. Over the summer the sweet potato plants grow quickly, sprouting attractive green vines that shade the soil, reducing evaporation and keeping the soil moist longer. At the same time, the vines help to suppress weeds, helping to keep summer garden maintenance low.
One of the great things about this challenge is that the sweet potatoes are ready to harvest in October, meaning the kids get to watch the last few months of their growth and to see, touch and taste the results of their work from the previous spring. The competition ends as students harvest and weigh their crops, competing against other schools to win the coveted first place in one of three categories: Largest Harvest (lbs), Weirdest Potato Shape, and Largest Potato!
Want to learn more about the Sweet Potato Challenge? Check out Shaw VPA teacher Angela Vaughn’s story of her students participating in the Sweet Potato Challenge last year here.
Thank you Shaw VPA!
As much as I loved spending time exploring the school garden, it wasn’t my goal in visiting Shaw VPA this week. So I wandered over to the nearby stump circle, and immediately had to smile.
Many of the school gardens Gateway Greening supports include a circle of old tree stumps – the perfect place for students to sit for an outdoor class, a reading period, or just to rest for a moment during particularly hot lessons. At Shaw VPA, art teacher Katie Warnick has transformed their circle into a fun place by having the students paint the stumps. It’s hard not to grin over all the different colors and designs the students brought into the garden!
Today I’m lucky, because a few of these stumps will be coming back to the office with me. Thanks to the generosity of Ms. Warnick and her students, 5 stumps will be included in the silent auction at our upcoming fundraiser, Chefs in a Garden. This event is one of the biggest sources of funding for many of our programs here at Gateway Greening, including the support we provide for school gardens throughout St. Louis. We’re thrilled to be able to share a little bit of the Shaw VPA school garden and its story with our supporters, and hopefully to start a stump circle somewhere new!
The best part? I get to spend the next few days smiling over the colorful stumps that surround my desk.
-Erin Wood, Communications and Fundraising AmeriCorps VISTA