“We make decisions in the garden based on what is good for the earth, not solely what is good for our short-term needs.” (Hurricane High School, Hurricane, WV)
When discussing sustainability in the school garden context, it is often related to maintaining the basic functions of the program to keep it in tact for years to come. This includes securing a volunteer base, establishing the physical garden in a location where it can remain, and gaining investment from other key individuals including students. All of these are important elements to a successful school garden; however, another aspect of school garden sustainability is focusing on the environmental impact. This is particularly relevant when approaching the summer months as the weather warms up and fewer people are available to help with regular garden maintenance. In areas of the country where naturally occurring rain events are not meeting the irrigation needs of the garden, decisions have to be made to ensure the plants are receiving enough water. During these peak growing months, challenges of pests can be expected which presents another opportunity to practice garden methods that respect our environment.
A Look at Sustainability
Environmental sustainability reflects the responsible use of natural resources so they are available for future generations.* The Latin root of sustain “tenere” means “to hold”. When we design sustainable school gardens in terms of the people involved, we identify policies and involve those individuals in a way that will enable us to offer the program to current and future students. Practicing environmental sustainability in the school garden puts the emphasis on holding onto the resources we currently have, such as access to clean water and air. Preserving natural resources through gardening will enable our current and future students to continue to have that access. Youth are often more receptive to adopting new behaviors than adults because they have not yet firmly established habits and beliefs. This is a great time to instill positive behaviors such as caring for our environment through sustainable practices.
Here are ideas for environmentally sustainable school gardens taken from the applications of some of our 2011 Healthy Sprouts grant winners:
- Use drip irrigation so water is not wasted by overspray/ wind/run-off and is directed right to the plants (Renton Academy, Newcastle, WA). Challenge older students to design their own mini slow drip irrigation system to learn about water conservation (Jennings School, Fairfield, CT).
- Rain barrels can be used to collect water running off the roof of the school/garden shed/other building and used to water garden crops. This can be a tool for teaching about run-off (Myers Elementary school, Gainesville, GA).
- Rain gardens are a great tool for reducing stormwater runoff and pollution in our waterways while providing greenspace to a site (Motivate our Minds, Inc., Muncie, IN).
- Collect and dry seeds from the school garden for the next season. Take cuttings from existing plants and shelter them indoors over the cold months to start the garden for next year. (ReNEW Accelerated High School West Bank, New Orleans, LA)
- Practice crop rotation. Keep record of the location of plants in the garden from year to year and avoid planting crops of the same family in the same vicinity year after year. This will reduce the occurrence of pest and disease infestation. (Affordable Community Environments, Vancouver, WA)
- Use interplanting to allow plants to share in the garden workload. Creeping plants can help keep down weeds; African marigolds can help deter harmful nematodes. Find out more about interplanting from garden.org.
- Focus on plant selection. Plants that are native to your area or that have growth requirements that can naturally be met at your site are less susceptible to some of the challenges to which less adaptable plants may succumb. This requires gardeners to develop an understanding of plant needs and have access to helpful resources. (Ravenna Parks and Recreation, Ravenna, OH)
- Keep pests away from tomatoes by planting marigolds nearby (Affordable Community Environments, Vancouver, WA)
- Explore the garden ecosystem and how everything has an effect on the other components. “Our students discovered a large Banded Garden Spider among our tomatoes and spent time observing, drawing, and discussing its place in our garden ecology. We discussed what might happen if there were no spiders in the garden. We make choices about our impact on the earth and can choose to take positive action to benefit our environment.” (Lincoln Elementary School, Madison, WI)
- Use newspaper as weed barrier. Not only does this reduce a problem in the garden, but it provides another way to recycle the newspaper. (Double Tree Elementary School, Memphis, TN)
- Get families involved and increase your workforce. Weeding can be a monotonous task. If students are required to spend too much time on this job, it can result in a negative garden experience. Organize a seasonal family picnic and garden day where many hands can share in the weeding making it easier to garden organically. (Larrabee Elementary School, Bellingham, WA)
- If funding/donations are available, solar panels are a nice addition to the garden. They can provide enough electricity to operate lights in the evening allowing for increased security and a sound system for more effective outdoor instruction. (Motivate Our Minds, Inc.)
- Allow students to create garden art using natural materials as a way to illustrate our connection with nature. (Greenbrier Elementary School, Baton Rouge, LA)
- Provide a location to collect uneaten green waste from cafeteria for composting to add to the garden beds. (Marysville School, Portland, OR)
- A worm bin is an exciting way to teach students to recycle organic waste. The castings can be used to replenish nutrients in the soil. (Renton Academy)
While suggesting ideas for a sustainable school garden is great, involving students in the brainstorm and implementation of sustainable practices will invite better understanding. Allow your students to be problem solvers. Suppose your site doesn’t have the budget for a drip irrigation system, a composter, and/or other sustainable practices. See what solutions your students can generate to make your garden as sustainable as possible. Through independent research and creative thinking, they may generate innovative solutions that better fit your site’s needs and will result in greater investment from the participants in your garden program. Leading by example is a great strategy to get students on the track to environmental sustainability. If this seems like a big undertaking, start small with just one of the examples given above. Allow your students to help decide what will be the sustainable focus for the semester and grow from there. It can be a learning process for the entire class and even school.
*Adapted from Pikes Peak Regional Sustainability Plan
About the Contributing Author
Carol Fraser is an administrator at a research garden in Harris County, Texas. She is a Master Gardener and a Master Naturalist as well as a member of Butterfly Enthusiasts of Southeast Texas. She has a background in education as a junior high and high school teacher as well as an administrator. She has been a small business owner and is a mother and grandmother. Carol earned her bachelor's degree from Texas Woman's University and her Juris Doctorate from The University of Tulsa. Carol serves as a valuable member of the 2011-2012 Kids Gardening Advisory Board.