School Garden Story


Next thing I knew I was sitting in a dingy conference room at Martin
Luther King Jr. Library getting briefed on these “mini-grants” from a
group called Garden Resources of Washington. Then a kick in the pants:
It turned out the woman presiding over the grants not only knew our school, but had gardened on the very same lot with teachers from the very same school.

PlantersconstructionThe stars were aligning in a very strange configuration.

I must have missed the bulletin that went out about starting gardens
with a group of people using grant money. What followed was more like a
heart attack in slow motion. First we discovered that a new owner of
the aforementioned vacant lot wasn’t so keen on having us garden there.
With seed planting time fast approaching, we had to make a decision:
Where to garden? The most likely plot was a 1,600-square-foot patch of
asphalt and concrete adjacent to the school. For some reason the
asphalt and concrete were covered with these big, one-inch-thick rubber tiles. And there was this further challenge: No Soil. Someone suggested containers. Brilliant!

We placed an appeal on the local listserv for containers. I pictured
donations of all kinds of grand terra cotta vessels and groovy metal
planters. We were soon deluged with empty kitty litter boxes and
plastic recycling bins. Somehow, I did not see these adding up to the
garden of our dreams. We would have to build our own planters. The only
question was whether I would max out my credit card waiting for our
grant money to come through.

To fit our budget and avoid toxicity issues, we settled on wooden
planters framed with natural pine 2x4s and covered with exterior-grade
plywood. Not exactly Garden Design, but it would have to do.
With some volunteer help from another parent who just happened to be a
carpenter with all the right tools, and a van to haul lumber from the
local Home Depot, we were off to the races. Our garden design soon
followed: Anything that divided easily into a 4×8-foot piece of plywood
made the cut.

Over a two-month period, we built planters whenever we found the time. We weren’t exactly sure what
to put in them. Gravel from a nearby construction site lined the
bottoms. The soil expert at a local nursery recommended a 50/50 mix of
topsoil and compost for our growing medium. In all, we used 18 cubic
yards of soil mix—two large trucks-full—before we were done.  The
planters were primed and ready just in time to plant our first peas.

Suddenly people were anxious to give us money for our garden: $1,000
from the local Advisory Neighborhood Commission. Another $1,000 from a
private donor. In all, we would collect $2,900, and we just kept
building containers until the money ran out.

There were some small details we overlooked. For instance, where was
our garden going to get its sun? When I said this plot was adjacent to
the school, I meant it butts right up against the west side of a
40-foot-high brick building. In fact, we get more sun in the winter
than during the regular groWormgirlwing
season. That and our imported soil mix resulted in cucumbers that
looked more like baseballs, watermelons the size of radishes, tomatoes
that just wanted to lie down and die, okra that never grew more than a
foot high and sprouted the funniest looking little pods.

But our herbs—the basil, the mint, the thyme, the marjoram and
oregano—all grew like weeds. We planted lots of lettuce that the kids
eventually harvested for all-school salad days. We had bountiful
flowers all planted from seeds: Black-eyed Susans, zinnias, cosmos,
morning glories, marigolds. We planted two crape myrtles in the corners
and they bloomed right on schedule. The climbing hydrangeas that I
envisioned covering the side of the building one day are taking their
sweet time establishing themselves. But our two witch hazels recently
burst into a profusion yellowish-orange blossoms.

Courtesy of the National Gardening Association, we were awarded a
big barrel-type composter from the Mantis Corp. So now the kids are
learning to compost their banana peels and apple cores, in addition to
the worm bins we started last year in one of the classrooms. We’ve had
several indoor seed planting sessions as well as a thriving seedling
operation under the grow lights. Last summer I started selling produce
in front of the school on Saturday mornings to raise more money for

I’d been cautioned to have all my ducks in a row before starting
this garden, not to expect a “Build it and They Will Come” result. I
have to admit I was disappointed that the garden was not immediately
adopted into the school curriculum. But slowly individual teachers
found ways to work the garden into their routines. They write in
journals. They read poetry. They beat on drums. One day I found kids
picking herbs and running into the school with them. Turned out their
teacher had started daily aroma therapy sessions. They also dried the
herbs and made teas.

The school is organized to teach through the arts. Thus the planters became a most excellent canvass.Leilamichael
The kids draw designs in class, then bring paints to the garden and
transpose their visions onto the plywood. One of the teachers had his
students design and piece together ceramic mosaics. They attached these
to the planters with stunning effect.

Oh, and I learned this valuable lesson: any child, no matter how
misbehaved, immediately turns into the most focused, goal-driven
individual when you put a watering can in her hands.

Recently two of the school’s teacher aides asked if I would help
design an after-school program around the garden. We had a great carrot
harvest in January and the kids battled over who would get to wash the
vegetables and peel them and turn them into salad. We also started Studio City Garden, where the kids write essays and post photos on the internet.

The ladies in Annapolis were impressed. “I didn’t even know such things exist,” said one.

Well, they do. It’s a hellavu lot of work. But more fun than a day job.


  1. That is a wonderful story of bringing nature and green things into the urban jungle where it will do the most good, with kids.

    The gravel layer in the bottom of your planters alarmed me though. Was that for good drainage? That is a gardening myth and actually causes the opposite reaction. It makes the soil more water logged and less well drained.

  2. School gardens as outdoor classrooms are very popular right now. We worked to bring a large-scale, native-plant, wildlife-habitat garden to my child’s elementary school, with more success than we dreamed. Once the project got started, grant money and donations from parents, local businesses, and the neighborhood association came rolling in. We ended up raising $10,000 in donations and grants, not counting donations of materials worth several thousand dollars.

    Anyone who wants to start an outdoor classroom in a school should, as Ed advises, look into all the grants available. There’s a lot of money out there, ready to be given to projects once they have some momentum of their own. From personal experience, I’d say start with a modest fundraising goal at the school and line up volunteers. Once you can show this kind of progress and commitment on your grant applications, you’ll find that your project will attract more money.

    And when the kids start digging and learning in the garden, it makes all the fundraising and organizational work worthwhile.

  3. As a former teacher, I know that giving students a hands-on project ensures they will remember something much better than just reading it in a book or hearing it from me. These kids are blessed to have this little garden just outside their classroom.

    And you are a brave man for giving a watering can to a misbehaved child. Sounds like a recipe for soaked students to me!

  4. We haven’t had too many soakings. One of their favorite tricks is to blow into the fill-hole of the watering can to create a jet of water out of the spout. They are creative little geniuses and you have to watch them at all times.

  5. What urban gardeners will do to find more garden space…LOL
    Great story, I hope it inspires more to get in there and just get started.

  6. We have a house and garden down in “south county” (as they call all waterfront south of Annapolis, which means we lack such a genteel veneer), so I laughed out loud about the garden club ladies – but seriously, yours is a great story and you will be surprised at the lasting effect it will have on the kids. Kudos to you for getting in there and making it work!

  7. Thanks for all your encouragement, everyone. And Christopher, I did research the question of stones. I don’t think there’s any scientific basis to prove or disprove the effectiveness of stones at the bottom of a planter as drainage. I’ve seen opinions pro and con. Because I have no desire to empty these huge planters, I opted for the stones to help to help the water flow out the bottom.

  8. What a great story, Ed! You are changing those kids’ lives. They will look at food differently from now on, and may well become much healthier eaters, once they understand that vegetables have the charm of coming from beautiful plants.

    My four year-old tries to avoid anything green on the dinner plate. But I don’t worry about her too much because she spends all summer grazing the yard, just yanking off a handful of basil here or a spring of rosemary there and stuffing it into her mouth.

  9. Dear Ed:

    My name is Linda and I’m the Donations Coordinator for Mantis, manufacturer of the ComposT-Twin dual chamber composter.

    I really enjoyed reading your story and I wanted to thank you for mentioning our brand name within it.

    Annually, through an agreement with the National Gardening Association, we donate tillers and composters to gardening groups all over the country, much like your own that educate children and communities in the joys of gardening.

    I’m delighted to know that the ComposT-Twin is aiding you in your efforts.

    I wish you continued success in gardening.


    Linda Beattie
    Donations Coordinator
    1028 Street Road
    Southampton, PA 18966

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