Strategies for Summer Maintenance in the School Garden

Summer break is just around the corner for many local schools, and while many of you may already be daydreaming of family cookouts, long pool days, and hitting the snooze button on Monday mornings, summer can also bring on a new set of stressors when it comes to tending to a needy school garden. While summer can be a prime time for growing food for the community, it should not require you to put your visions of a relaxing break on hold. Below are two of the main approaches in sustainable school garden maintenance along with suggestions on how to enjoy a low-maintenance summer gardening season.

First Approach:  Let the Garden Grow!

Letting the garden grow does not have to mean letting the garden go! There are a variety of methods you can try if your goal is to keep the garden tidy and have a productive summer harvest.

    • Create a Weekly Summer Maintenance Sign-Up Sheet: One of the easiest methods for keeping the garden growing is to break the summer vacation up by weeks and ask volunteers to sign-up for one week out of the summer. Encourage staff, parents, neighbors, and community partners to choose a week they will visit the garden a few days for basic gardening maintenance like watering and weeding. You may try engaging people to help by allowing them to harvest and keep any produce that is ready during their week! You can also create a volunteer kit that includes a weekly task list, garden tools, and any additional information needed, so that even the novice gardener feels comfortable helping out. 
    • Adopt-A-Bed: Turn your school garden into a community garden over summer! Tell teachers, parents, and neighbors that they can adopt a garden bed over summer. In return for getting a bed of their own to use, you might ask them to help out on group work days or to water the entire garden one day each week.
    • Identify Summer Partnerships: Does your program plan to use the school for summer programming? If so, reach out to the staff who will be on campus over summer and see if you can help them find ways to incorporate the garden into their programming. In return, you can ask them to help maintain the garden, so that students can return to a healthy harvest in the fall. If your program does not plan to host its own events on campus over summer, see if you can partner with a nearby group or institution. Perhaps there is another local school holding camp that does not have a garden and would enjoy bringing their students to your space. Maybe there is a nearby church who would like to use the garden space for a summer camp. Is there a university that might want to use the garden for classes or research in return for their help with garden maintenance?

Second Approach: Putting the Garden to Sleep

A sustainable garden does not have to produce food every garden season! If you struggle with capacity and your goal is simply to keep the garden in a low-maintenance, tidy state so that it will be ready for fall planting, then your best bet might be putting the garden to sleep for summer!

  • Close the Beds for Summer: The easiest way to “put the garden to sleep” is to securely close beds up for summer. This involves removing all weeds and covering the beds with a material that will prevent new weed growth. One way to do this is to begin by thoroughly weeding each bed. Next, you can cover the bed with cardboard to further suppress weed growth (optional). Finally, you will want to use weed fabric or a similar material that will block sunlight and water from getting to the bed, so that new growth can not occur. You will want to cover all of the bed and secure the fabric in place with sod staples or heavy rocks. When you are ready to begin prepping the beds for fall, simply pull back the material and you should have a weed-free canvas for planting!
  • Grow Cover Crops: An alternative way to keep the garden low-maintenance and the soil healthy for fall planting is to plant cover crops! Cover crops can be grown from anywhere between 30-90 days in order to help suppress new weed growth, reduce erosion, reduce nutrient loss, and add organic matter to the soil.  Once the cover crops are grown for the recommended duration, they are then tilled back into the soil to die off and add nutritious organic matter to the beds.  You can then begin preparing your fresh soil for fall planting. Some of our favorite summer cover crops include cowpeas and buckwheat!

Do you have other great tips and tricks for summer school garden maintenance? We would love to hear them and share them with our network of growers! Share your ideas by emailing us at [email protected].