Maintaining a school garden can be a test of commitment and courage. Sourcing material, creating locally adapted lessons, encouraging staff to adopt garden norms, and communicating with volunteers can make any school garden coordinator feel stretched. Winter is time for slow gardening, so take a moment to consider these three principles of slow school gardening.
#1. Be Patient: Aspire to Asparagus
This past fall, I planted my first asparagus crowns. Seasoned gardeners might wonder where I got crowns so early (typically, they don’t appear in garden centers until late winter). I actually started them myself from seed in January of 2014 (nearly 3 years ago)! In that time, I’ve moved them to several locations (I’m an indecisive gardener and asparagus is a true commitment), but several weeks ago, they found a permanent home in my backyard garden.
Asparagus is a lesson in patience.
If you ever wondered why asparagus is relatively expensive, it’s because of the front-end investment in the crop. If you plant crowns, it takes about three years to harvest the first slender spears, but then they can be harvested for over a decade. I look forward to my first real harvest in the near(ish) future. For more information on growing asparagus, visit Modern Farmer or Rare Seeds.
Dedicating a bed to asparagus, or other moderately sized perennials is a wise investment because it reduces labor associated with annual crops. I’m considering adding a row or two of asparagus in the school garden I manage. Not only is asparagus an interesting looking plant with a unique life cycle, it is not always familiar to young children. Along with the perennial strawberries and perpetual cilantro (an annual self-seeder), adding asparagus to the Culinary Garden at Pueblo Vista will reduced the need for annual labor and maintenance by about 20%.
#2. Instill Permanence: Plant Fruit Trees
Like asparagus, fruit trees are gifts that keep on giving. They add variety to a vegetable-centric school garden and structure to low growing annuals and perennials. Plant them well once and they will produce for decades. Compared to annual vegetable crops, fruit trees require relatively little maintenance beyond yearly feeding, harvesting, and pruning.
Fruit trees instill permanence.
Because fruit trees are often a one-time investment in the school garden, it’s important to choose wisely. Although stone fruits (peaches, plums, nectarines) may be an attractive option for their sweet, summery deliciousness, it’s better to plant trees that do not require summer harvesting. Apples, pears, pomegranates, and persimmons are good options, provided you select dwarf varieties to keep the yield manageable. Figs are also harvested in fall and provide ample shade, but even dwarf varieties can be prolific producers, so be certain you have a way to use all the fruit before putting one in the ground. If you prefer citrus, be sure to select hardy varieties to protect them from frost.
Community Groundworks in Wisconsin offers this handy guide filled with considerations to make Before You Plant fruit trees in school gardens. For more information about crop planning with fruit trees, visit the Collective School Garden Network.
#3. Promote Passive Gardening: Let the Land Rest
As temperatures drop and daylight hours wane, it is often a hustle to prepare the garden for winter. Apart from harvesting and preserving the summer bounty and restoring nutrients to the soil in fall, it’s often difficult to get a head start on cool season crops. Especially in winter, it’s a good idea to plan for fallow ground. Similar to using perennials and fruit trees, passive gardening is another tenet of permaculture, a philosophy guided by sustainable garden practices.
Passive gardening provides time to rest and regenerate.
Proponents of permaculture believe humans should design agriculture to align more with natural ecosystems, many of which have periods of overwintering and hibernation. Most of the activity below the surface continues to happen in the cool winter months, allowing microbes to replenish lost nutrients in the soil.
Letting the land rest makes it easier to prepare beds for late winter/early spring plantings. The time you save by letting some plots lie fallow can be spent on careful garden planning. I just love to leaf through seed catalogs while on winter break. Some of my favorite resources are from Mother Earth News and Square Foot Gardening.
Remember these three practical slow school garden tips and you will also restore yourself this winter. Happy Holidays!