Summer Maintenance in the School Garden

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 how do successful school garden programs keep their crops growing and their gardens beautiful throughout the summer? As the summer of 2016 winds down, the Gateway Greening Educators take a look at some of the most successful school garden strategies they saw this year.

Start with a Plan

Garden Leaders and Educators can set their school garden up for success by planning ahead in spring. Start by considering your garden’s community: who are the key supporters? Volunteers? What community resources could your garden connect with for assistance?



Leveraging Community

Second grade teacher Angela Vaughn of Shaw VPA Elementary knows that no school garden is maintenance free during the summer months. Her solution was tap into the school garden’s existing community to create a ‘duty-roster’ for summer. Before school let out for the long break, Vaughn partnered with Gateway Greening Educator Punita Patel to ask students and their families to adopt the garden for one week during the summer. In this way, families could take turns weeding, watering and harvesting. 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 drew in volunteers from the surrounding neighborhood who stopped 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!

Tips for creating a summer maintenance schedule:

1. Before school lets out for break, ask students and their families to adopt the garden for as little as a day or as much as a week, with the reward of taking anything they harvest home! Use sign-up sheets to hold everyone accountable.

2. Ask fellow teachers to get involved! It never hurts to have an extra pair of eyes checking for droopy plants in need of water!

3. Reach out to the surrounding community. Often, neighbors are one of a school garden’s most valuable long-term volunteers!


The Sweet Potato Challenge

Beyond the schedule, 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.



Host Garden Parties

This past summer the PTO at Mallinckrodt Academy for Gifted Instruction (MAGI) put a new spin on garden parties by inviting students, their families, and even the surrounding neighbors to spend Tuesday evenings with them in the school garden!

Each garden party was almost like a small festival, with kids excitedly monitoring how their plants were doing, small food demonstrations from fellow gardeners and an ever changing variety of activities! A few of our staff favorites were:

  • Potluck dinners that resulted in recipe swaps between families
  • Local vendors selling cupcakes and pizza by the slice
  • Food Truck!
  • Yoga class for all ages
  • Music & Dancing – One night, there was even a live band!
  • Sprinklers for the kids to play in (that watered the garden at the same time!)

The garden parties at MAGI turned out to be a great way to keep families engaged not only at the school, but also in the garden. Each week students were encouraged to spend some time weeding and harvesting their crops. They then turned around and sold the food to their families and neighbors. Parents had fun helping the kids to set reasonable prices on each crop by sharing what they would expect to pay for the same thing at their local grocery stores, and the proceeds went on to the PTO to help fund future events and activities. By the end of June, the MAGI school garden was well cared for, well known, and had more community buy-in than it had at the end of the school year!



Tips for Hosting a School Garden Party:

  • Start simple – a sprinkler and a potluck meal can be a blast for people of all ages!
  • Help the kids set up a market stall – not only does it encourage garden maintenance, but it’s a great way to keep kids learning simple money handling and business skills while providing healthy food to the local community.
  • Look to your community – is there a parent who could lead an activity one night? Is there a local restaurant or bakery that would be willing to donate food or treats?


Connect with Local Volunteers

Increasing educational opportunities for kids is a cause everyone can get behind – and that includes in the school garden! Clay Elementary School’s Cougar Garden in Hyde Park Neighborhood demonstrated the power of connecting with community in several ways this summer.

Encourage Neighborhood Involvement

Since starting the Seed to STEM program at Clay in 2013, summer maintenance has always been a challenge. This year three individuals from the surrounding neighborhood offered to help keep up with garden tasks while the students were away on break, and the garden leaders were open to it. These 3 volunteers were a major asset to the garden and did a fantastic job caring for the garden despite several challenges including tool theft.,By being open to listening and discussing the youth garden’s needs when neighbors ask about volunteering, school gardens can develop a strong network of locally based volunteers.

Connect with Organizations

Clay’s Cougar Garden also benefits from fostering relationships with local organizations, like Link STL.

In response to Hyde Park Neighborhood’s unique community challenges, 2015 saw the founding of Link STL – a grassroots, community organizing entity that specializes in connecting people to opportunities.

This connection led to several great partnerships in 2016, starting with a local kids summer camp that came to explore and help in the garden once a week throughout the month of June. In this case, the summer camp gained a safe space for the campers to play and learn outside. The garden in turn saw active use during a time when it’s normally under-utilized, and also received a bit of help with weeding and watering. The campers even creatively re-painted the street planters with fun designs!

The connection with Link STL also led to a large work day in the Cougar Garden when volunteers from Rise STL and BAMSL Young Lawyers Division pitched in to help prepare the garden for the beginning of school. The work day came about when Rise STL and BAMSL approached Link STL about the possibility of founding a garden in Hyde Park, and were surprised to discover there was an existing garden that could use their help. Large groups of volunteers from both organizations spent a day weeding, mulching and watering the vegetable beds, the pollinator garden, and even helped to re-lay a mulch pathway into the orchard.

By connecting with both neighbors and local organizations, Clay Elementary School’s Cougar Garden was able to take advantage of many volunteer and educational opportunities that it may not have had access to otherwise. Taking the time to explore who is in your neighborhood and develop partnerships can be time and energy well spent in the long run.

The Takeaway

Any school garden can successfully create a summer maintenance program that keeps the garden active and attractive even over the longest school break. Try implementing one or more of the techniques that kept Shaw VPA, Mallinckrodt, and Clay school gardens growing!

  • Plan Ahead – Use Spring to identify key volunteers, supporters, and activities for the summer
  • Connect:  Extend beyond the school by connecting with neighbors, neighborhood organizations and local businesses to find and cultivate volunteer assistance
  • Get Active: Participate in an challenge, host an event, create a pop-up farm stand, or invite other groups into the garden to keep the space active and growing over summer break
  • Review: At the end of summer, ask what worked? What didn’t? Write down what you learned for next year!