Can’t Wait for School to Start!



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.


  1. Michele, have you ever thought of doing worm composting with the kids? It’s a really fun, hands-on way to teach them about biology, composting, and sustainability. It doesn’t have to replace outdoor composting in a program, but rather can augment it. Let me know if you’re interested and I can get some more information to you about a program Nature’s Footprint has for schools!

  2. What your doing for the kids at Lake Ave. is so great. We check it out when we drive,walk or wheel by. It’s fun to watch it grow and see you so up on most Friday’s after you’ve been cooking or gardening there!

  3. Good for you……………Have found nothing but road blocks in Ulster and Dutchess counties with getting involved with charitable events. Capital District Community Gardens is another one…asks for volunteers then no one calls you

    the TROLL

  4. We’ve had great luck with families who sign up to care for the garden during the summer – one family per week signs up to water at least twice a week – our water source requires a “key” tool, but we have permission to use a pair of pliers that will turn the water on instead. My biggest worry was taking care of the garden during the summer, but families have been very responsible!

  5. Sounds like your having great fun Michele…

    And don’t let anyone know I told you this, but the super-secret plumber/custodian special key for turning the spigot on and off can be had at any plumbing supply store (or big box store in the plumbing section) for about $5 a pop.

    And pliers do work too. 🙂

    Garden on!

  6. How do you manage the summer work? I’d love to talk to my daughter’s elementary school about doing something like this, but where we live, most of the harvest is during the time that school is out. I know that we could do greens, but from my own gardening experience with kids, that’s not their favorite vegetable.

  7. Great post. The success of gardening with school kids is such a lift to the spirit of one who’s been listening to a lot of ‘bad’ news these days.
    Thank you for doing such important work!

  8. Hi Michele,

    This is a fan note from a fellow gardener. I just picked up your book “Grow the Good Life” after reading about it somewhere. I find we have very similar experiences and are kindred gardeners in many ways, both starting our first garden the same year, me in Seattle and you in New York. I find it could have been me writing this book because I feel so many of the same things about unnecessary garden products, ridiculous over use of pesticides and “kill” products at the local garden sections of Home Depot, soil testing?? never done it, probably never will. My garden feeds my family of 6, with plenty to share. I teach a garden class to Montessori K-2 and it is so popular with the kids. They just soak it all up and are amazingly enthusiastic, though messy. I’m not entirely a kid person either, but seeing how excited they get makes it all worth it. I love your blog!!

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