A school garden takes shape

*continued from an earlier post: “In the beginning, there was . . . gravel and sand”

Unlike many educators who start a school garden, I’m not a horticulturalist or science teacher— my only professional experience in this field is a summer of landscaping work right after high school, which consisted mainly of planting trees and lots of pansies, laying sod and shoveling fill dirt, and digging trenches and laying PVC for irrigation systems. No, my background in gardening – now fashionably dubbed “urban agriculture” – is purely DIY.

These localized practices were commonplace back in 1970s and 1980s Alabama. When I was growing up, my family had a garden plot in the backyard, and my dad, my brother and I were the yard crew for most of the elderly neighbors for a block in every direction. We also had a greenhouse off the back porch, where we could get our plants out of the cold and where my dad grew cacti and succulents as a hobby. From that experience, I learned when and how to plant and tend tomatoes, squash, peppers and cucumbers; I learned that mulched leaves and grass clippings raked into beds constituted fertilizer; and I learned to prune azaleas right after they bloom and that roses need acidic soil. I didn’t take classes to learn those things. My dad taught my older brother and me about them, as well as this very important lesson: anything you can do for yourself is something you don’t have to ask other people for.

That’s what I want the students to learn from this school garden— that and how to do things right. The intangible nature of good schoolwork = good grades isn’t enough to show young people how effort pays off. Sometimes, it has to be more than a symbolic letter on nine-weeks report card. In the Book of Ecclesiastes, chapter 10, verse 18 reads “Because of laziness, the rafters sag; when hands are slack, the house leaks.” If we plant the right things at the right time and tend them in the right way, we have a greater likelihood of our work paying off.

However, I also know that we’re going to plant some seeds that don’t grow, and that we will have some fledgling sprouts to wither, and that we will yield some seemingly healthy plants that bear no fruit. The purpose of a garden at a school is to figure out why we succeed sometimes and fail others, then carry that knowledge forward. If we succeed all the time, with every plant, the students will walk away thinking that’s how it goes— it’s just not.

With each construction day, we’ve made a little progress, and the students keep coming back the next day to make a little more. Gardening – or horticulture, or urban agriculture, call it what you want – isn’t a one-and-done activity. You have to keep showing back up, from seed to sprout to yield. That’s another good life lesson to learn from gardening.

Everybody keeps asking me, what are you going to grow? I answer simply, I don’t know. Whatever the students want to plant. One boy has been expressing a desire to grow sorrel since our first meeting. Others have stated a preference for more traditional Southern staples: tomatoes or collards. Whatever ends up being in our raised beds, we’ll consult the reference books to avoid doing something stupid, like planting tomatoes in February, and take it from there.

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