Here are some general guidelines for taking care of a school garden. We often pass this information on to volunteers that are taking care of the garden over the summer.
- Nurture the plants. Take care that the water you are spraying isn’t toppling the plants. Make sure that as you hoe the weeds you are not also damaging the plants. Be gentle with the plants as you pluck their fruit.
- Don’t step in the beds. Healthy plants depend on loose, uncompacted soil. Compacting the soil makes it harder for water to penetrate and reduces roots’ access to pockets of air.
- Do your best not to work in a wet garden. Water assists in the spread of disease and makes it easier to compact soil. As a rule, wait until the morning dew has evaporated. Water after you have trellised and harvested, not before.
- Return tools to the toolbox in a clean condition. Use a steel brush to scour any patches of dirt, then sink the working end of the tool in the tool care bucket (sand/oil mix). Make sure hoses and watering cans are emptied of all water. Dry gloves in the sun before stowing.
- Many of the in-school lessons are designed around students harvesting produce from the garden. For this reason, harvesting should only be done under the supervision of the Garden Coordinator. See the Harvesting section below for a few exceptions.
- The force of water exiting the hose can kill small plants. Be sure that the hose is fitted with a gentle spray nozzle before watering.
- Water the soil around the plants, not the leaves of the plants (as much as possible). Give the soil a gentle first coat of water to “prime” it. The water should not pool during this first application. When you are done, the soil is ready to receive a second, larger soaking. Move on as soon as you see the water begin to pool.
- As the season progresses, the garden soil becomes more compacted. In order for water to penetrate it adequately, you may need to scratch the surface of the soil with a hoe before watering.
- The garden should receive water 2 to 3 times a week. Steady rain counts as a watering. The best time to water is in the early morning. The second best time is whenever you are able to do it, night or day.
- To empty the hose of water, detach it from spigot, remove nozzle, extend length of hose, and begin coiling hose from the upper end (if it is on a slope).
- The best time to weed is on a bright hot day—the beating sun is our ally when we’re trying to eradicate a weed. The second best time to weed is whenever you are able to do it, night or day.
- Pull weeds out by the roots and gently bang off excess dirt. Exception: snap off weeds at the ground if they are too close to the plant you are cultivating.
- Weeds can be placed in the compost bin, provided they do not have any seed heads. Cover the weeds in the compost bin with a layer of straw twice the thickness of the layer of weeds, then use a garden fork to stir the contents of the entire bin. Throw weeds with seed heads into the trash.
- Tomatoes need to be trellised weekly. To trellis tomatoes, tie the twine to a stake at the end of a row about 1 ft. above the existing twine. Weave around the tomatoes until you reach the stake at the end of the row. Tie off the twine, leaving no slack, and weave back in the direction you came. Your second weave should be exactly opposite of the first weave, so that the tomato plants are trapped between the two pieces of twine and held upright.
- Trellis tomato plants before watering them. The branches become brittle after watering, and disease is spread from plant to plant more easily when they are wet.
- Turn the compost weekly. The “garden claw” and digging fork will be the best tools to use for this. If it looks very dry, add some water to encourage decomposition. If it smells bad, add more “browns” (e.g. straw or leaves). Once pile has been turned, be sure there are no exposed, rotting fruits or vegetables that could attract rodents.
- Find a suitable location on school property to dump larger items like broccoli plants, raspberry canes, and sunflower stalks. If no suitable location is available, bring them to the city recycling center (in Homewood at the corner of Dallas Ave and Hamilton Ave).
- You are more than welcome to collect your compost at home and add it to the compost bins!
- Use the proper tool to harvest so that you do not damage the plants.
- When harvesting the leaf or stem of a plant, never take more than half the plant.
- While most plants are being saved for classroom use, some plants produce so abundantly that their wealth can be spread around! The list of Foraged Produce is limited to these 7 magnificent crops: Lettuce, Raspberries, Cherry Tomatoes, Ground Cherries, Fall Broccoli, Kale, and any flowers. The more you take of these, the more the plant will produce. The herbs (Basil, Mint, Sage, Parsley, Cilantro, Dill, Chives, and Thyme) are also available as Foraged Produce if harvested in moderation. Here are a few harvest instructions:
- Lettuce: Use the harvest knife to give the lettuce a haircut, leaving about an inch and a half to regrow. Lettuce becomes unbearably bitter in early summer when it bolts (starts to send up a seed stalk).
- Raspberries: Pull gently on a ripe red raspberry. It should separate easily from its white core. If it’s not separating, it’s not ready to be harvested.
- Cherry Tomatoes: Once tomato fruits have deepened in color, pull gently from plant. Harvest before watering to assure concentrated flavor and to keep from cracking. Remove the calyx (green hat) if you’re collecting them into a container so that it doesn’t pierce the skin of a neighboring tomato.
- Ground Cherries: These tomato-relatives are also called husk cherries. Once the fruits drop from the plant onto the ground, they are ready to be collected and eaten. (Harvest before watering to keep them dry.) Peel back the brown, papery husk to reveal the yellow, pineapple-flavored fruit. Enjoy!
- Fall Broccoli: The variety of broccoli we grow in the fall produces a small central head, but then produces a massive amount of side-shoots (also known as florets). Cut these off with pruning shears. The stem is especially sweet!
- Kale: Use your hand to grasp a kale leaf near its base. Push down on it so that its stem is parallel with the trunk of the plant, then pull up on it. It will come away from the plant. Harvest leaves that are at least 9” long.
- Basil, Mint, and Sage: Cut the stem with pruning shears just above a pair of leaves. The leaves will turn into a new set of stems.
- Parsley and Cilantro: Use pruning shears to cut largest stems near the base of the plant.
- Dill, Chives, and Thyme: Use the pruning shears to remove 6” sprigs from the plant.
- Flowers: Cut flowers (except for sunflowers) when you see some you like. Harvest similarly to basil, leaving enough stem to fit in your vase. Cutting them will encourage the plant to produce more flowers. You can’t go wrong!
- Occasionally carrots, garlic, spinach, spring broccoli, sugar snap peas, turnips, and beets are available for harvest. Check with the Garden Coordinator before harvesting these crops.
Download the printable PDF: Basic Garden Care