It's a bizarrely early spring here in upstate New York. I've never started planting out of doors at the same moment I've started tomato seedlings in the basement, but that's where we are this year. Ready to go! I've been looking at my own garden with something of a sigh–it's just too small for me–I need a bigger yard. But the school garden at the elementary school down the street gives me a surge of adrenaline every time I walk past. Ready to go!
This will be the fourth year that I've run the afterschool Garden Club with my partner Carol Maxwell. And in that span of time, I've learned a lot about gardening with kids and cooking with kids, as well as life, the universe and everything. So here is my advice to anybody eyeing a sunny spot in a schoolyard and considering whether he or she could do something civic-minded there.
1. Just do it. I am NOT a very civic-minded person. I'm not a total kid person, either. And I'm certainly not an organizer. But the Lake Avenue Elementary School garden has nonetheless been one of the great joys of my life.
2. Cook as well as garden. Gardening with 20 elementary school kids–impossible. Designed to drive the adult gardener crazy. You will constantly find yourself pleading with a 2nd grader, "Thin the carrots, don't yank them ALL out before they're ready." Let children who've been cooped up in school all day out of doors, and they will look at any space as a playground, including a garden. They will play tag over beds of emerging seedlings. It will be chaos. Cooking, on the other hand…you can get 20 kids to wash, chop, mix and saute simultaneously. They will focus. They won't yell or fight. They will love eating the food they've grown. We cook in the faculty lounge. Obviously, Lake Avenue Elementary has the world's most patient faculty.
3. WIDE paths in the garden. Enough said.
4. The Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds catalog. I like many different seed catalogs, but the kids like exactly one: Baker Creek. Let's face it: the Baker Creek entrepreneurs, Jere and Emilee Gettle, are very stylish people, and the catalog is a gorgeous as a Newbery-medal-winning picture book. In previous years, I'd bring in 20 disparate catalogs for the kids to choose seeds out of. They fought over Baker Creek. This year I got shrewd and called up Baker Creek, which generously sent me 25 of their beautiful books. No fighting!
5. Pick the right partner, ideally a genius cook. I know almost everything that needs to be known about vegetable gardening for the purposes of a school garden. What I need is inspiration! I certainly got that in the form of my partner Carol,who is an amazing, creative, intrepid cook who constantly expands my horizons. She even knows about Korean food! The food we make in Garden Club is superb–so good that we have kids polishing off things like Swiss chard pie and eggplant salad and asking for seconds. So good that the parents arrive suspiciously early to pick up their kids. And the kids, of course, LOVE serving the food they've made to their parents.
6. Pick the right principal. We certainly have her. For years, we've had to battle the facilities side of the district, which initially rejected the idea of the garden on the grounds it might draw rats. (!) But she has backed us through everything, including expanding the garden, and wants to find a way to allow us to expand the cooking operation, too. She is a pretty, gentle, deceptively small-voiced Southerner who really gets things done. Here's proof: Her school was just invited to apply for a federal Blue Ribbon School designation as an amazing place, which it is.
7. Even more important, pick the right head custodian. After years of giving us various head custodians who looked upon the garden with extreme distaste, the district recently chose the nicest, most sensible man in the world to oversee the building and grounds. Cause for celebration! John really understands the garden, and since watering it is sometimes a problem–it takes a key to turn on the water, so it has to be done during the hours when the building is staffed–he waters it for us all summer long. For this, there will surely be a reward in the afterlife.
8. Relax. I'm very tightly wound when it comes to timing in my own vegetable garden, keenly aware that certain things have to happen NOW. But that doesn't always work in the school garden. Since snowplows run over it every winter, we can't keep the fence up and have to wait until all chance of snow has passed in spring to begin. There are vacations. Carol and I both work, so there are Friday afternoons when Garden Club just can't meet. Stuff happens late sometimes, or not at all.
It took me two years to figure it out, but this endeavor is NOT about the garden and making it perfect. It's about the kids. And for them, the garden IS perfect.