Growing School Gardens In Winter

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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!

Mrs. Tackett instructing students in the school garden.

Mrs. Tackett instructing students in the school garden.

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).

A January 13th harvest from the Rainbow Kale bed.

Sampling a January 13th harvest from the Rainbow Kale bed.

Student learning in the garden on October 13th. Planting must be done in advance of winter, as shorter day length slows growth dramatically. Look at how everyone is on task!

Student learning in the garden on October 13th. Planting must be done in advance of winter, as shorter day length slows growth dramatically. Look at how everyone is on task!

A sample raised bed plan that I designed for the school. Themed gardens are so much fun!

A sample raised bed plan that I designed for the school. Themed gardens are so much fun!

 

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!

A December 13th harvest of cabbage to feed the school.

A December 13th harvest of cabbage to feed the school.

High school students help sell PES produce at the Farmers Market.

High school students help sell PES produce at the Farmers Market in early November.

Serving fresh kale salad on November 21st!

Eating kale salad from the school garden on November 21st!

 

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!

Students weeding the Stirfry bed on September 12th.

Students weeding the Stir Fry bed on September 12th.

Receiving instructions for thinning the beds on October 9th. The beds are so full going into winter, and plant growth slows down so dramatically, that weeds aren't a winter issue.

Receiving instructions for thinning the beds on October 9th. The beds are so full going into winter, and plant growth slows down so dramatically, that weeds aren’t a winter issue. That’s the same Stir Fry bed on the upper left.

Covering the beds with Gro-Guard on October 30th.

Covering the beds with Gro-Guard on October 30th.

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.

What?! These kids are SMILING as they eat baby mustards and Asian greens! Enjoying a "Make Your Own Salad Dressing" activity with school garden greens harvested October 20th.

What?! These kids are SMILING as they eat baby mustards and Asian greens! Enjoying a “Make Your Own Salad Dressing” activity with school garden greens harvested October 20th.

Students learning to make stir fry from me, using their vegetables on October 23rd. Every student insisted that I make sure a turnip was in their scoop of stir fry when it came time to eat!

Students learning to make stir fry from me, using their vegetables on October 23rd. Every student insisted that I make sure a turnip was in their scoop of stir fry when it came time to eat!

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.

 

Small carrot, but BIG joy. Harvesting on December 13th from the Cole Slaw bed.

Small carrot, but BIG joy. Harvesting on December 13th from the Cole Slaw bed.

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.

The cabbage worms infesting the Cole Slaw bed proved to be just as much fun for some kids as the playground nearby. Although active in early fall (October 1st here), they disappear when freezing temperatures arrive.

The cabbage worms infesting the Cole Slaw bed proved to be just as much fun for some kids as the playground nearby. Although active in early fall (October 1st here), they disappear when freezing temperatures arrive.

 

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!

 

There isn't much left in this overwintered bed from our first year winter gardening, but the kids LOVED eating the edible kale blossoms.

There isn’t much left in this overwintered bed from our first year winter gardening, but the kids LOVED eating the edible kale blossoms. May 9th, 2014

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!

Mrs. Tackett assists two students as they create educational videos, teaching others what they've learned through the garden.

Mrs. Tackett assists two students as they create educational videos, teaching others what they’ve learned through the garden.

Comparing temperatures inside the tunnels with the outdoor temperature. Yes, temperature will still get cold enough for veggies to freeze, but they bounce back.

Comparing temperatures inside the tunnels with the outdoor temperature… a 12 degree difference on January 8th. Yes, temperatures will still get cold enough for veggies to freeze, but they bounce back.

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.

 

A win-win. Students learn the science of composting and nutrient cycling, and the school garden gets free fertilizer.

A win-win. Students learn the science of composting and nutrient cycling, and the school garden gets free fertilizer.

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.

 

These students are following the garden from planting to harvest.

These students are following the garden from planting to harvest.

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.

Planting the Rainbow Kale bed on August 28th.

Planting the Rainbow Kale bed on August 28th.

A student instructs her peers about the garden on October 14th.

A student instructs her peers about the garden on October 14th.

A student making a journal entry on September 9th. So many changes and so much growth will occur between fall and spring for him to observe.

A student making a journal entry on September 9th. So many changes and so much growth will occur between fall and spring for him to observe.

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.

You'll never think of "frozen vegetables" the same way. Cold-tolerant plants desiccate and become limp in freezing weather, preventing their cells from bursting. They bounce right back when temperatures warm.

You’ll never think of “frozen vegetables” the same way. Cold-tolerant plants desiccate and become limp in freezing weather, preventing their cells from bursting. They bounce right back when temperatures warm.

 

Growing Recognition

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.

Award

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.

 

Learning More:

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

 

 

11 Comments

  1. darlenehrichardson

    January 19, 2015 at 9:04 am

    You all are doing a wonderful job! It is exciting to see the looks on your faces when you are nurturing the garden and especially when you are eating what you have grown. Keep up the good work!

  2. jasmineaujardin

    January 19, 2015 at 10:21 am

    Hi! This is a real inspiring adventure. Thank you for sharing. I agree that it is a challenge to keep those school gardens alive. In the garden of my children’s school, the success is assured by citizens (Incredible Edible style). But of course we have to share the abundance!

  3. Ane

    January 19, 2015 at 12:01 pm

    Thank you for sharing with us! You are learning as you go and teaching others at the same time. Way to go! Maybe I should really say, ” Way to GROW!”

  4. Backyard Roots

    January 19, 2015 at 3:53 pm

    This is a fantastic post, combining two great subjects – school gardens and winter gardening. Thank you for sharing – great work!

  5. Petra

    January 20, 2015 at 1:12 pm

    You have me motivated to try winter gardening when I return home and retire in two years. Thank you for inspiring an oldie!

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  8. Carol Daly

    May 5, 2015 at 1:36 pm

    What a great job you’re all doing …. students and teachers alike! I wish school systems everywhere would participate in programs like this …. science lessons, nutritional lessons, observational skills, cooperative participation to create something that benefits all ….. what more could you ask from a little garden?! I could even see this (or perhaps a summer garden addition) becoming a PTO or Booster Club fund-raiser, growing and selling veggies at farmer’s markets or to small independent grocers. Lots of possibilities!

    • Cathy

      May 9, 2015 at 1:31 pm

      Thank you, Carol! Yes, it is growing in so many ways!

  9. Rebeckyleigh

    August 27, 2015 at 3:58 pm

    I helped start a garden last year at my children’s elementary school. I brought in seeds, and the kids started broccoli, lettuces, chives, and nasturtiums in the winter, and then they transplanted them in spring along with some peas. They loved it!

    However, yes, things fell apart over the summer, and the children have been asking if they get to plant anything this year.

    Would you be willing to share your planting/maintenance/harvest/etc. schedule for any of these? We’ll move forward regardless, but my enthusiasm for winter gardening outweighs my experience. 🙂 We’re in Middle TN, so just one zone away from this school.

    • Cathy

      October 29, 2015 at 9:17 am

      Somehow I missed your comment… sorry! Is there anything that I can help you with now?