Seasonality and school gardens

Many nutritious food crops are grown best in the spring or fall while school is in session.

Advantages to spring and fall vegetable growing and learning
One of the most common myths I hear for not establishing a school garden is that students are not in school in the summer when vegetables are being grown. Now, this is true for many hot crops such as tomatoes, peppers, melons, cucumbers and blueberries. However, there are many tasty and nutritious crops that are grown primarily in the spring or fall while school is in session, such as lettuces, peas, radishes, broccoli, cauliflower and strawberries.

Growing food crops in the spring or fall has many advantages. Non-traditional cool season crops offer the opportunity of teaching students about the health and economic benefits of eating vegetables and fruits in season when they are the most abundant, tasty and least expensive. There is also the opportunity to teach that growing these crops during the cooler parts of the season avoids problems that plague these crops during the hotter summer months. For example, cauliflower heads will not develop in the hot and often dry temperatures of Michigan summers. Leaf lettuces often send up a flowering stem (also known as bolting) when temperatures rise and the leaves turn bitter, ruining their taste for salads. Rain is also typically more plentiful in spring and fall thereby reducing the need and cost for additional irrigation.

Unique learning opportunities
Fall and spring are also excellent times to learn about cover crops, and can teach children (and adults) the importance of protecting the soil from erosive winter winds – hence the name “cover” crops. Restorative cover crops are grown specifically to improve or protect the soil, and often do not produce a harvestable crop other than improved soils. Many cover crops are in the legume or bean plant family that adds nitrogen to the soil acting as natural fertilizers.

Cool season crops can also teach students about season extension techniques such as hoophouses and the high price out of season crops can demand. Michigan State University Extension produced a bulletin entitled “Hoophouse Farming Startup: Economics, Efforts and Experiences from 12 Novice Hoophouse Farms” that could serve as an easy resource for season extension learning.

Increased community involvement
Summer school programs have grown in popularity in recent years, and can be utilized to maintain gardens during the summer months. Involving and getting the support of local gardeners and businesses to assist with the school garden in the summer may grow some essential community support for both the garden and the school during the regular school year.

There are so many advantages to a school garden – don’t let the common myths keep you from adding these excellent and tasty educational tools!

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