Growing School Gardens In Winter
You’ve seen them before – those abandoned raised beds in a schoolyard near you. Once filled with tiny pepper plants and towering sunflowers, weeds and rusty tomato cages now occupy their growing spaces. But not all school garden programs realize this fate – some prosper and grow. What makes a school garden program last? Why do some flourish year after year, while others fizzle after one growing season?
Despite a surge in popularity of school gardens since the 1990s, surprisingly little research is available to answer that question. Studies published to date focus on impacts to student attitudes and diets, rather than the practicalities of garden management and continuity. A single survey, conducted by Longwood Graduate Fellow, Felicia Yu, and distributed by the National Gardening Association, provides some insights.
Yu’s 2012 research identified many problems that challenged school garden success, but certain factors stood out. Among them, summer maintenance. For schools on a traditional 9-month calendar (representing 984 surveyed gardens), vacation maintenance was second only to funding as the biggest challenge to garden sustainability.
Certainly many schools have found some ways to maintain their gardens over the summer break – either through the assistance of paid or voluntary garden workers, by integrating the garden into the summer school curriculum, or through the sweat of an extremely dedicated and enthusiastic teacher. But the fact remains that a significant percentage (43%!) of schools on a traditional calendar cite vacation upkeep as a major challenge to their garden’s continuation and success. So it’s not surprising that there are so many “raised bed graveyards” (as a colleague of mine calls them) in schools across the country. Weeds and insect pests simply replicate faster than volunteer garden workers.
One possible solution? Grow school gardens in winter! For those who don’t follow this blog, that may sound like an impossible task, but at least one school is making it happen successfully. Even more remarkably, Pikeville Elementary School (PES) is not in sunny California or Florida, but in the Kentucky mountains, plant hardiness zone 6b. The amazing teacher behind this school garden, Mrs. Traci Tackett, attended one of my winter gardening workshops in the summer of 2013. Her creativity and can-do attitude, paired with my expertise in winter gardening, produced an inspiring school garden that continues to gain recognition in our region and nation. I’m so excited to share it with you here!
Winter crops are currently growing in four, 4×12 ft raised beds in the PES schoolyard. Each bed is designed around a theme, with cold-tolerant vegetables as the template: a Stir Fry Garden, Salad Bar Garden, Cole Slaw Garden, and a Rainbow Kale Garden (colorful kale varieties planted in a rainbow pattern). All beds were planted in late August to early September… just a few weeks after the new academic year began. Low tunnel hoops were installed over each bed, and once nighttime temperatures reached 25°F (-4°C), we added Gro-Guard fabric row covers (graciously donated by Atmore Industries).
The PES gardens have flourished despite single digit temperatures and -0°F wind chills (last year’s garden survived the even harsher sub-zero temperatures and -35°F windchills of the Polar Vortex!). Some of the produce has made it to the cafeteria, providing sides of kale salad, cole slaw, and broccoli at lunch. Students also sold early garden harvests at the Farmer’s Market, and the remainder continues to grow in the garden. You’d be surprised at just how much food a few raised beds can produce!
I’ve grown from this school garden as well. During my 7-year tenure as a high school biology teacher in the 1990s, I often thought about growing a garden with my students, but was turned off by thoughts of all that summer upkeep I would be responsible for coordinating. At that time, I didn’t know winter gardening was possible. Now, I realize it’s not only possible, but has some distinct advantages over the spring-planted school garden. Let me give you ten of them.
10 Reasons to Grow a School Garden in Winter
1) Low-maintenance by nature
All plant growth slows down during winter, weeds included. Most of a winter garden’s work is done in the early fall, and once plants mature, the covered beds essentially become living refrigerators until you feel like going out to harvest. There’s no weeding November through February, provided that you’ve first weeded getting the beds established. There isn’t even a need to water, since evaporation and plant transpiration drops so significantly. Gro-Guard fabric row covers, permeable to air and water, are more than sufficient protection for our winter growing – we don’t have to constantly vent cold frames or low tunnels covered with plastic (which can overheat and cook plants on sunny days). From November onwards, there simply isn’t much maintenance… except harvesting, of course!
2) Discovering leafy greens and root crops
It really doesn’t take that much coaxing for a child to eat a tomato or sweet corn. How about curly mustard, or the maligned turnip? Rather than planting a garden catered to the palates of the child, it makes sense to choose vegetables that will help them explore new tastes. Greens and root crops become so incredibly sweet and tender grown in winter – you’d be surprised by the students’ reactions. Our students’ favorite vegetable from the garden this year, beating out sugar snap peas, carrots, and lettuce among others? Hakurei turnips… I kid you not! As soon as the covers come off the raised beds, students start picking and eating, regardless if it’s kale or spicy mustard. Let’s face it… if vegetables were first introduced to kids in the garden, rather than their plates, we’d have a lot fewer picky eaters out there.
3) Finding joy in winter weather
Since the publication of Richard Louv’s Last Child in the Woods, there is growing recognition of the role outdoor experiences have in healthy child development. Convincing children to spend time outdoors in winter is an even bigger challenge than other times of the year, making it all the more important that we build outdoor learning constructs at that time. Worried about the cold? Students are so excited to work in the garden, they don’t grumble and complain about the winter’s chill. I won’t be so romantic as to say they don’t notice the cold, but they do realize that they can spend an extended period of time in freezing weather, and still have a great time without losing their fingers to frostbite.
4) Fewer pests and disease
Because of concerns with pesticides around growing children, many school gardens choose to grow organically. Growing in winter is ideal for organic methods, as freezing temperatures aren’t conducive to pests, or the fungi and bacteria that cause most plant diseases. Cabbage worms have been the only significant pest that we’ve faced in our gardens, largely in the early fall – these are easily thwarted by some regular hand-picking. Once winter freezes arrive, pests and disease are a concern of the past.
5) A seed-to-seed view
It’s easy to see where beans and tomatoes come from, since we eat their seeds when we consume them, but how about kale or beets? Many cold-tolerant plants bolt in the spring after overwintering, giving students a unique perspective on the life cycles of the vegetables they’ve learned to love. And they can taste that new dimension, too – our students couldn’t eat enough of the kale blossoms that developed last spring!
6) Stem to STEM
School gardens perfectly illustrate STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) concepts, but especially so in winter. Winter growing challenges student ideas about gardening, cultivating sincere curiosity about how plants survive. As they watch plants freeze and thaw without damage, students learn that most plant adaptations to cold, such as the accumulation of sugars, or the antifreeze proteins that modify the propagation of ice crystals in plant tissues, are largely chemical in nature; biology, chemistry, and the physical sciences easily weave together. Under the protection of low tunnels, vegetables survive temperatures many degrees lower than what they would otherwise, illustrating how concepts in engineering solve a real world problem. This is authentic learning!
7) Grow your own fertilizer
Fertility in traditional school gardens becomes an issue over time, since most programs harvest right up to frost, leaving little time to clear dead plants and sow a rejuvenating cover crop for the winter. Since produce grown in a winter garden can remain harvestable all the way up into April (and for some plants, even into May), there is plenty of time to plant and establish a good cover crop before leaving for the summer break. Nitrogen-fixing legumes like hairy vetch, alfalfa, or clover not only build soil fertility, but smother weeds that may try to invade the beds. Once school starts back in the late summer, the cover crop can be cut and composted elsewhere, or composted in-ground by tilling it into the soil – the bed will be ready for planting in 2 weeks, and rejuvenated with rich organic matter and nutrients.
8) More than an add-on
When gardening is year-round, there’s simply more opportunity for a school garden to become a fixed part of the school culture. It’s a fantastic idea to have summer school students work in a garden, but shouldn’t ALL students get to help a garden grow from seed to harvest? Winter gardening provides an opportunity for all students to participate, all year long.
9) Longitudinal learning
Most school projects are “once-and-done” – a single experiment, a writing project, a poster presentation. Student learning in a winter garden is inherently longitudinal – the planning and planting of the garden when school begins in late summer, weeding and thinning plants in fall, observing and harvesting in winter, and final harvests and cover crop establishment in spring. It’s a great opportunity for journaling, and for conducting long-term, authentic experiments.
10) Inspiring others
Don’t we all love a success story, especially when it defies the odds? Growing in winter goes against everything that most of us have been told about gardening, making students all the more eager to share what they’re doing with their peers, parents, and community members. And I like to think that it inspires a can-do, anything-is-possible attitude. Have you ever watched a wilted, frozen plant spring back to life after it’s warmed in the sun? It’s nothing short of magical.
We’re not the only ones that think growing in winter is pretty special. Our PES students earned first place in their region’s Student Technology and Leadership Program (STLP) competition – they’ll be going to state competition with Mrs. Tackett and STLP teacher Neil Arnett in March. High school students associated with the project won National Senior Level Rookie of the Year in the 2014 National Energy Education Development (NEED) Project Youth Awards. Most recently, PES students were awarded with the PRIDE Environmental Education Project of the Month award. And PES students continue to make newspaper and television headlines.
So what do YOU think? If you think winter school gardens are a great idea, show us your support by following the “STEAMdVeggies” Website and their Twitter page. Don’t tweet? Leave a comment here – I know the PES students would love to hear from you.
You can learn more about winter gardening through my numerous posts on this blog and my Facebook page, or through these outstanding books (these affiliate links cost nothing extra to you, but generate advertising fees that help me support this blog):
School Gardening Resources:
Special Thanks To:
Atmore Industries – Gro-guard Row Cover
Pike County Soil Conservation District – grant for garden tools and composter
Sustainable Pike County – soil for raised beds and PVC pipe for low tunnels
Appalachian Renaissance Initiative– grant for seeds, worm farm supplies, broad fork and other items.
Pike County Cooperative Extension – Farmers Market booth space
PES Cafeteria – prepping and serving school garden harvests
Photos courtesy of Traci Tackett and Neil Arnett