Schools keep gardening efforts going all summer

The school year runs just the opposite of the growing season, making it difficult for educators to teach kids how to garden. But many school systems enlist volunteers to prep garden beds while students are on summer break, making the crops ready to tend when classes resume in September.

“We’re working against nature, but we add a lot of season extenders,” said Seth Raabe, South Whidbey (Island) School Farms coordinator in Langley, Washington. “That includes greenhouses and different plant varieties. We want to get the school gardens going as early as possible and then extend them as late as possible in order to fit class schedules.”

School gardens have been used as an educational tool in the United States for well over a century, developing from standard vegetable beds into year-round windowsill settings, Grow Labs and hydroponic towers.

Fresh student-grown edibles augment public school menus, contribute to healthier nutritional habits and food safety, teach record keeping and marketing, provide exercise and build a life-long appreciation for the environment.

In short, students are encouraged to shift from being couch potatoes to cultivating lunchroom tomatoes.

Whidbey’s school garden volunteers, like many around the nation, range from parent-child teams to community activists — different generations working shoulder-to-shoulder to plant, fertilize, water, cultivate and then harvest what produce matures early. Raabe said the summer work sessions are twice a week.

“Some of what we harvest, we eat immediately after the work sessions,” he said. “One of us leaves the garden early to prepare fresh salads or fruit.”

Surplus edibles are donated to food banks. “We just dropped off 20 pounds of peas to a co-op last week,” Raabe said.

School gardens get children outdoors, active and engaged in what occupational therapists call “heavy work,” said Emily Shipman, executive director of KidsGardening in Burlington, Vermont.

“Some teachers find it a challenge to get kids outside, unfortunately,” Shipman said.

“Children today are, on average, 30-percent weaker than children in the 1980s because they are more sedentary — less recess and more iPads,” she said. “They’re also eating more processed foods leading to obesity (and) diabetes.”

KidsGardening is an independent non-profit group that provides grants, lesson plans and more.

Because garden-based learning is mostly participatory, even failures count as valuable learning experiences. Everybody learns best through doing, Shipman said.

Youth gardens can be used for subjects ranging from math to science, reading and writing.

“There are so many countless lessons, including those soft skills such as collaboration and team building,” said Tanna Nicely, executive principal of South Knoxville (Tennessee) Elementary. “We also use it for conflict resolution and therapy with our school counselor. Working with the soil tends to create a safe haven for my kids.”