Last year, Randolph Middle School in Charlotte, NC, received a PLT GreenWorks! grant to initiate a community garden on our school grounds. Randolph is an urban school with diverse enrollment. Its student body comes from 32 different countries and 52 percent of its students receive free or reduced lunch. Now students can grow organic vegetables outside and in view of the school cafeteria. They study the garden in science class and share what they learned (and grow) at a table in the cafeteria, as well as with needy families at Habitat for Humanity’s food bank.
The project began last spring with the construction of raised beds, including one designed specifically to accommodate students in wheelchairs. We held several workdays over the course of the year and had over thirty students and parents at each one, planting, spreading mulch, and weeding. It was a wonderful experience for all. A good number of these inner city kids had never planted anything before, and helping them gently wiggle a plant loose from its pack, nestle it in their hands, dig a hole, and then plant it was powerful stuff. Our events weren’t glitch-free, of course. We encountered some language barriers with parents, and on one occasion kids were dropped off with no plans made to pick them up.
Our first crop of tomatoes, peppers, okra, lettuce and herbs made us forget about all project challenges. Student faces would light up with wonder and amazement when they saw what kind of results their hard work had produced. The students continued smiling as they learned to harvest and deliver the vegetables to the Habitat for Humanity food bank, which is a short distance from the school. Before the planting began, students in our student leadership council had set up a meeting with Habitat for Humanity, and visited their offices to see the food bank. The food bank usually features dry food like ramen noodles and macaroni-and-cheese mix. Habitat for Humanity was thrilled to have fresh vegetables, and the students were proud to provide them.
Students not only felt good about their contribution to their local community, but also learned the science behind organic farming. They studied crop yields, flavor, and appearance, and conducted regular soil tests to monitor soil quality over time. They learned what it takes (time, money, labor) to grow and harvest your own crops, as well as some health and nutrition facts provided by the fresh vegetables.
Every sixth-grade class set up worm bins to make compost for the garden. Students also weeded invasive plants and learned first-hand how invasive species can take over when there are no natural defenses or balancing environmental systems. The 6th-grade teachers used a “Green Invaders” video (funded in part by GreenWorks!) in their classrooms to help teach lessons about biodiversity and invasive plant species.
If another school or community wanted to undertake a similar gardening project, here are some tips to consider:
- Find a site with sun, a water source, and in close proximity to the school.
- Realize at the outset that the project is best started on a small scale and then grown. Everything takes longer than you think!
- Have a summer plan so someone can keep your garden healthy. This is very important if you plan to use produce from your garden in the fall. The two biggest challenges are getting a planting schedule to work in conjunction with a school year, and dealing with unexpected weather.
- Before you have students come, spend a few days getting the basics ready. Consider preparing some raised beds ahead of time.
- Get the word out and be consistent. At the school open house in the fall, we set up an information table and had a sign-up sheet.
- For the first few months, EVERY Sunday, we had a gardening day. Sometimes we had to take turns organizing it, but it was the biggest key to our success. Instead of dwindling, the crowds grew and our Garden Sundays became wonderful, fun events.
- Have enough for everyone to do. You will need lots of spades, gloves, weeding baskets, shovels, rakes, etc. and preferably more than one wheel barrow. If you’re building extra raised beds, have lots of hammers for everyone to work. Our school also has a native habitat, so we were able to send people over there to allocate tasks. For example, assign who digs holes, who plants seeds, or who waters. We found the workdays flowed smoothly as long as there was an interesting job for everyone.
- Have enough for everyone to do. You will need lots of spades, gloves, weeding baskets, shovels, rakes, etc. and preferably more than one wheel barrow. If you’re building extra raised beds, have lots of hammers for everyone to work. Our school also has a native habitat, so we were able to send people over there to weed and spread mulch. Consider incorporating art-related projects as well, such as making a scarecrow, building a small fence and decorating it with student designs, or making stepping stones for the perimeter. We plan to build and install benches next.
- Plant both seeds and young plants. That way you’re getting gratification a little more quickly, but students still get to experience a sense of wonder as they see seeds grow.
- Avoid using chemicals. Help students learn that sustainable, organic gardening is preferable. Learn about companion planting and use good soil and compost.
- Bring drinking water. We’ve learned large jugs and cups (labeled with names!) work better than disposable plastic bottles.
- Invite guest teachers. We had a Master Gardener come speak as well as an expert from our local Soil and Water Conservation District teach about composting.
- Include your school cafeteria and consider having tasting tables. The veggie tasting table in the cafeteria was a huge hit. We used paper cupcake liners to serve our produce samples. What we had thought would be the biggest challenge – getting the school cafeteria to accept our produce – hasn’t been a problem. We’re saving them money!
- Involve community partners. Our Habitat for Humanity connection needs more nurturing, but we’re trying to organize for them to visit our school and even interview prospective Habitat Home candidates. It is harder to get a Habitat Home than we imagined, but the wheels are in motion and we’re hopeful for the future.
The most important lesson for students, and one that we hope has a long-lasting effect, has been that planting something, growing it, and then harvesting it takes time. The gratification is tremendous, but it is not instant. Vegetables that were planted last spring were just shared in the cafeteria this year. Little by little, a sense of nature’s process is sinking in.
The project is a wonderful success, and as the students and teachers at the school take ownership of the project and share it with others, we hope it will continue for many years to come.