Ask the master gardeners
Q: This year I would like to start a garden at my child’s school. Can you give me some advice?
A: Starting a school garden has many benefits, such as teaching children appreciation for nature, patience, nurturing and responsibility. A vegetable garden teaches kids where food comes from and encourages their healthy eating habits — they generally tend to eat more vegetables when they personally grow them.
Further benefits from working in a garden are improved physical and mental health, enhanced creativity, better concentration, increased ability to learn and retain knowledge, and a deeper understanding of the natural world and the need to conserve it.
When choosing a site for the garden, remember that most plants, especially ones that bear fruit, require at least six hours a day of full sun. Second, have the soil tested at your local Cornell Cooperative Extension to determine if you need any amendments to adjust the soil pH (acidity or alkalinity).
Another important requirement is good drainage; if the soil tends to be soggy, you will need to amend it to improve its texture. The site should also be away from trees, which will subtract nutrients and water from the crops. Remember that you need a nearby water source and possibly a fence to keep out wildlife.
Choose your plants: annuals, perennials, vegetables and herbs. Make a plan: draw your garden on graph paper and place your plants, keeping in mind the height and width of each plant at maturity (remember, some tall plants may shade nearby lower growing plants). If choosing perennials, remember that most of us in the Lower Hudson Valley are in USDA Zone 6, so you should only buy plants that are rated hardy for this zone. Also remember that our last freeze date is around May 15, so count on planting annuals, tender perennials and certain vegetables after this date.
Decide who is going to plant the garden, and who will maintain it, especially during the hot summer months when school is closed. The beds need to be watered and weeded, the plants monitored for pests and diseases, and the vegetables harvested. Make a schedule that shows the different tasks and whose responsibility they will be.
Summertime volunteers at the Scarsdale High School garden:
A final suggestion given by Cornell University is to start small and add to it in following years, as you become more experienced and get more people involved in the basic care of the garden.
You can learn more from a new online course from Cornell University: Teaching and Learning in the School Garden at http://hort.cals.cornell.edu/cals/hort/teaching/distance-learning/school-garden.cfm and local support from the School Garden Network at Cornell Cooperative Extension of Rockland.
Laurie M. Lago Rispoli, Tappan, master gardener with Cornell Cooperative Extension of Rockland