PLAN OF WORK FOR A NO-DIG SCHOOL GARDEN
Having worked with many schools in their gardens over the past 5 years I have put together this plan of work to help teachers and children have success in managing their school gardens. It is intended as a guide or starting point to teachers perhaps unfamiliar with school gardening. I also run monthly gardening courses and workshops and I provide training and consultancy to schools. I hope you find this plan helpful and I wish you every success in your school garden.
How big to make the School Garden and what to include?
I suggest having 6 raised beds or areas, 1 for each year group from 1st Class up. A good size would be 1 x 2 metres giving a total annual veg area of 12m2. This is a manageable size. 12 bags of compost / manure annually is enough to feed the soil and will cost about 80 euro annually to maintain.
A bed for Herbs and Sensory Plants including some perennial flowers, perennial grasses and perennial vegetables. Perennial flowers return year after year and can be divided in spring.
Mud Kitchen and exploration area
Wildflowers and Bulbs area
Seating area for outdoor lessons
Rainwater Harvesting from school roof ( near veg area)
Log pile for Insects
Bug Hotel with small sunken pond ( a sunken Belfast Sink or tub under for safety
Storage area for tools.
A wooden bird hide for Birdwatching
A weather station
These elements can be put together or spread through the school grounds. The sketch above shows one example of how this can be put together into an overall design. Each school garden would require its own design. The work could be phased over many years. Do get in touch if you need help with this.
The School Year
The school year runs from September to June the following year. This plan starts in September and includes a number of overwintering hardy vegetables that crop before the summer hoildays. The plan can be started at any time in the school year with suggested activities for each year group. In this plan each year group is given some planting and gardening tasks for the Autumn and Spring. As the child moves through the school they will have the opportunity to connect with the natural world, discover wildlife and grow a range of vegetables. They will plant wildflowers and bulbs, tend fruit and learn about sensory plants such as herbs, flowers, grasses and perennials. The tasks are designed to be age appropriate based on my experience working with children.
No-dig gardening method
Traditionally the soil is dug adding manure in the Autumn. This is unnecessary work which only brings weed seeds to the surface where they germinate and creates more work. Instead each Autumn spread organic compost or well rotten manure to a depth of 5cm on the soil surface. This will be incorporated by the worms and will reduce weeding. It will feed the soil life which in turn feeds the plants. Allow 1 bag of manure / compost per square metre of growing area. To make a new raised bed watch this video
Preparing the planting area
For all outdoor planting ensure that the area is first weeded by hand removing the roots of any weeds. Try to disturb the soil as little as possible. If planting in Autumn add the compost or well rotten manure on top and spread evenly over the surface first before planting. This can be walk on or threaded down and then raked level.
Sourcing seeds and plants
For seed I recommend the following Irish companies Irish Seedsavers, Brown Envelope and Fruithill Farm ( onions, garlic Potato, spring bulbs)
For fruit google Irish Seedsavers, Englishes Fruit Nursery and local garden centres
For Herbs and bulbs selection try a local garden centre such as Johnstowns in Naas
Each year the crops rotate so they are grown in a new area. This helps reduce the buildup of pests and diseases and gives the soil a break from growing the same crop.
Sowing seeds Indoors
Many of the crops are started off indoors in the classroom. I recommend using a mix of 2 parts organic peat free general purpose compost mixed with 1 part sand and 1 part horticultural grit. The grit and sand create good drainage. Fill the trays and pots with compost and place the seeds their own depth beneath the surface. Position the seed trays in a sunny south facing windowcill and do not allow them to dry out. Sometimes for a variety of reasons seeds fail to Germinate or the seedlings become too tall and leggy. Where this happens it is possible to directly sow many crops outdoors a month later than the indoor sowing dates suggested. There is also the possibility of buying some plants in modular trays from the garden centre as a back up if all else fails.
Junior and Senior Infants
Wildlife, Play explorations and Wildflowers
Define an area separate to the vegetable growing beds allowing for exploring the soil and finding minibeasts and play. Very young children are fascinated by worms and insects and relish the chance to explore using a hand trowel. Exploring the area each season will reveal different creatures. Allow the weeds and grasses to grow in this space. Try pouring water on the bed to bring up worms. Place objects such as a wooden board on the soil to create hiding places for slugs and snails and return regularly to see what has moved in.
Setup a mud kitchen using plywood and pallets.
In April Sprinkle wildflower seeds on a bare patch of ground rake and water in.
In April make wildflower seed balls for throwing by mixing some soil, compost and seed in a bucket with a little water and shaping into little balls. These can be dried on a tray and flung on bare patches in the garden. Use native seed available from Wildflowers.ie . Avoid using bee bombs as the seed is non native.
Setup up a little garden centre in the classroom with tools and pots etc. (Aistear)
Half bed of Overwintering Broadbeans in October and half Early Peas in March
In October sow broadbean seeds into deep modules in the classroom. Plant these out in the garden in November. If some fail to germinate directly sow some seed into the ground 15cm apart in a zig- zag row with rows at 60cm apart. Lay the seeds on the bed and push under the surface mulch using the thumb to the depth of the second knuckle. Look after the crop through regular watering and weeding. Place 1 metre high bamboo canes along each row in April and weave some string around the plants to give support in the wind. This is only necessary in a windy garden. Pinch out the growing tips of Broadbeans in May to stop growth and direct energy into beans. Bean Pods can be harvested in June by twisting of the pods. The beans are delicious boiled. See https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oO3P_TJx_so
In March sow 3 pea seeds each into deep modules or small pots. In April plant these around a wigwam made from bamboo canes. Tie twine to the canes and work this horizontally up the wigwam to the top. This is a very strong structure which will resist wind well. Help the young plants by guiding the tendrils to the lower strings. Water regularly and the peas can be harvested in June. See https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vRVSNYTVLRs
Overwintering Onions and garlic in October and Scallions in March
In September plant some winter onions sets. These are small onions which are simply pushed halfway down into the soil with the hairy root pointing down. 5 rows of onions 20cm apart will fit in 1 m2 with an onion every 10cm in the row. Place a temporary net over the bed to deter birds pulling out the onions. Keep well weeded and watered to swell the bulbs. These 50 onions will be ready for harvest from mid June. Onions can be dried undercover or eaten fresh. After harvest cover the bed with strong tarpaulin to prevent weed growth. See https://www.quickcrop.ie/learning/video/onions
In October plant garlic by making a hole with a wooden handle and plant cloves twice their depth under the soil and 20cm apart. I bulb gives approx 8 good outside cloves. The garlic will be ready by mid June. See https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_F4GM2zcrEI
In March sow scallions in modular trays or small pots. Place 10 seeds in each module and grow as a bunch. Plant out in April 20cm apart. These will be ready in June. https://www.quickcrop.ie/learning/video/spring-onions
Before the Holidays clear and cover the bed for the summer with tarpaulin.
Perpetual Spinach in October followed by Squash in April
Sow Perpetual spinach into modular trays in September, 2 seed each and plant out in October 30cm apart. This will grow through the winter and provide a crop until May. See https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fE59HrNodZY
In April plant winter squash seeds, 1 per pot in the classroom. Plant these out in May, 1 metre apart. Grow a few incase of damage by slugs etc. Ensure the area has plenty of good compost or manure added. These will grow through the summer supressing weeds and provide a harvest in October. Cut the squash including the stalk. Dry in a sunny place and store inside through the winter. This makes a great soup. Try growing Uchi Kuri or Crown Prince squash! See https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LZXW19Z1Ktk
Tend Sensory area of perennial herbs, kales, cabbages, flowers and grasses in September and in March grow Pakchoi and Beetroot in veg bed
Tend and plant new herbs, flowers and perennial edibles in a separate sensory area to the annual vegetable beds. Avoid planting Mint, Lemon Balm and Fennel as they spread easily. Plant some perennial kales and cabbages which will grow for many years and plant new perennial flowers and grasses which come back year after year.
Start pakchoi and beetoot in seed trays indoors in March. Plant out in April under fleece. Harvest in June. Clear and cover the bed with a tarpaulin before the holidays.See Beetroot Growing https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qPVHCh1cDMw
Pakchoi is grown in the same way as Lettuce see
Plant Bulbs in October in Meadow, Sow Lettuce in March and Carrots in early June
In October cut the grass short and sprinkle yellow rattle seeds into a grassy area. Plant a selection of spring and summer bulbs in this area. Dig a 20cm hole putting in groups of bulbs such as daffodil, tulips and alliums. The yellow rattle will supress the growth of the grass and the bulbs will come through. Allow the grass to grow until the following October when it can be cut and raked for removal once a year in subsequent years.
In March sow lettuce into modular seed trays a few seeds per module. In April plant this out under fleece for protection. This will crop from May to June by removing the larger outside leaves. See https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_pgcvN6TuE8
In early June clear the lettuce and plant carrot seeds directly. Rake the bed level and sprinkle the seeds in a 20cm wide strips about 30 cm apart. Use a piece of string as a guide. Gently rake over the rows to plant them. Water regularly until germination and cover with an environet to protect against carrot root fly. The carrots will grow over the summer providing good weed suppression and be ready for harvest from October. Carefully remove carrots with a fork. Carrots can remain in the ground thought the winter and removed as needed. The follow on crop to carrots is Pak Choi and Beetroot so the space is not needed until April the following year. See https://www.quickcrop.ie/learning/video/carrots
Autumn fruit tending, Potatoes in March and Managing the Composting
In September and October harvest fruit and weed /mulch fruit area
In November prune fruit trees
Plant new fruit trees and shrubs in Feb if needed.
Throughout the school year take on the management of the compost system. Add a 50 /50 mix of brown and green materials in thin layers. Turn the compost heap in the Autumn and harvest for use in the garden. For more on composting see my blog post See my blog on Hot Composting.https://patshunts2002.wordpress.com/2014/03/09/hot-composting-using-coffee-grounds/
In Feburary Chit early potatoes in egg cartons in the classroom somewhere out of direct light. From Mid March plant chitted potatoes into their bed at 25 cm spacing in the row with 3 rows in the bed. 12 seed potatoes per 1m2. Plant 15cm deep and as they grow add more compost around the plants to earth them up. This will increase yield. Water well especially when flowering as this indicates the tubers are swelling. Harvest 12 weeks after planting in Mid June. Search for potatoes using hands near the surface. Take care to remove all potatoes even small ones and do not put these into the compost. After harvest cover bed with compost and a tarpaulin to prevent weed growth. Try Homeguard or Charlotte. See https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zXO_j0vriwk