Here are the plants that we choose to have in our school gardens and a detailed description of why we choose these particular plants.
Click on each vegetable to view more details.
Download a printable PDF: Plant Notes
The deep red, almost purple leaves, stem, and seed stalk of this Mexican native stands out in the garden. It’s the plant that most passersby ask about. We always tell curious inquirers that the leaves of the young plant are edible, but that the seeds are where the real flavor pops. You can also grind the magenta seed husks into a paste for use as dye. Recommended: ‘Hopi Red Dye’
Bachelor’s buttons, also known as cornflowers, attract beneficial insects to the garden by the gallon. Their fuzzy, dart-like seeds germinate right in the garden when direct seeded in the cooler temperatures of early May. Bachelor’s buttons are known to have edible flowers, but they tend to have the texture of tissue paper.
Basil complements the tomato both in the garden and in the kitchen. As a companion plant, it drives away some tomato pests. As a culinary element, it adds a spicy complexity to the tomato.
The earthy flavor of a beet will turn up most kids’ noses (and those of more than a few adults). But if you pickle a beet for a few weeks in a salty brine at room temperature, the sour crunch becomes addictive.
‘Piracicaba’ is the fall broccoli par excellence. It doesn’t create much of a central head, but the side shoots are prolific and very sweet. Make sure it’s near the edge of the bed so that students have easy access to its irresistible florets. Encourage grazing!
Choose a variety for spring that creates a nice central head but doesn’t create many side shoots. You’ll want to pull it out of the ground right after a late May harvest to make room for sweet potatoes and to keep the pesky flea beetle from taking shelter in its leaves and roots.
Cabbage and the nearby carrots can be combined to make a delightfully sweet coleslaw.
We plant pelletized ‘Napoli’ carrots in late July and watch them grow until late November, at which point they mature into candy-like sweetness. If you mulch them heavily and cover them with a cold frame, you can bring your students out to the garden during a January thaw for an even-sweeter snack. Who knew the garden held such treasures in the middle of winter!
It’s hard to go wrong with the carrot. Such a tiny seed! Such a succulent treat! Plant a few rows in early summer so that they’re ready when students return to school in the fall. Students are often so anxious to get to the orange root that they accidentally rip off the top before pulling it out of the ground. Show them how to use a garden fork to loosen the soil first, and you will make fast friends.
Cauliflower is delicious roasted, but many schools don’t have the capacity to roast it on site. Instead, try pickling this broccoli relative as you would beets—in a salty brine at room temperature for two weeks. The already outrageous amount of Vitamin C found in cauliflower will go through the roof.
Grow cherry tomatoes. They are more prolific than slicing tomatoes, they are tolerant of cool summer temperatures (which usually reduce tomato yield), and they are sweeter than standard tomatoes. Kids who think they hate tomatoes can be found hiding behind a bush inhaling ‘Sun Gold,’ tomatoes. Choose an open-pollinated variety such as ‘Honeydrop,’ or ‘Black Cherry’ to make fall seed-saving lessons possible.
This stalwart perennial provides a light oniony flavor to a variety of dishes, especially spring frittatas. The flowers are edible if you like to chew on tissue paper.
The leaves of this cool-season crop are great for making salsa or for sprinkling (with lime) atop a roasted sweet potato. As the season progresses its seed stalk will start performing and you’ll get the highly aromatic seeds known to chefs as coriander.
Crimson clover, an annual variety of clover, germinates well in the cool temperatures of early spring. It suppresses other weeds while fixing nitrogen into the soil for the main season crop. Till it into the soil two weeks before planting or transplanting your new crop so that it releases all of its stored energy back into the soil.
This one’s handy to have around for its yellow flower heads (which picklers love) and because it’s a host plant to a few different butterfly larvae, particularly the Black Swallowtail.
Everbearing raspberry fruits twice in a season: once during the month of June, and once in September. It couldn’t make a better bookend for the school year! Also, it’ll give you buckets full of berries, preventing the inevitable brawls at the school garden next door over who gets to eat the two ripe strawberries.
Plant these at the end of September so that they have time to establish themselves before winter. The Field Peas help fix nitrogen back into the soil while the Oat roots hold the soil together to reduce erosion. Unlike other cover crops, Field Peas and Oats winterkill, saving you the back-breaking work of turning them under.
Judging by the exclamations you hear on harvest day, you’d think every last kid had struck oil. Truly, the humble potato is the bedrock of civilizations. It’s the pride of Peru, the intimate of the Irish. Kids see its value immediately, especially if its purple! Fingerling potatoes are smaller than the supermarket standard, but they produce more potatoes per plant. Recommended: ‘Purple Peruvian’
Ground Cherry, Husk Cherry, Cape Gooseberry… these are all names for the most popular snack that can’t be bought at the store. After foraging for them on the ground around the plant, remove the papery husk and pop the golden yellow fruit into your mouth. It’s related to the tomato but tastes more like a cross between a pineapple and a kiwi. Good thing these plants are prolific!
Grow hardneck garlic. Plant in late October and watch it overwinter. The seedhead it sends up in early June will invite a lesson on pruning. And the seedhead (or scape) can then be ground into a flavorful pesto. Recommended: ‘Music’
The color contrast of a purple hyacinth bean twining around a yellow sunflower makes a great photo.
Kale is rich in Vitamin A and even provides some iron. As an alternative to coleslaw, make a kale-beet salad. Grate the beets, finely slice the kale, and toss it together in a honey mustard dressing made up of olive oil, vinegar, honey, mustard, salt. Recommended: ‘Lacinato’
Leeks are the “onion” of choice for school gardens. Trying to grow an onion can be frustrating because it usually needs to be harvested just before school starts, robbing kids of the experience. Leeks, though, can stand in the field until Thanksgiving (and beyond). Use it to make a creamy potato leek soup! Recommended: ‘King Richard’
Use the row seeder to plant this in late March. Come mid-May you’ll be up to your ears in lettuce. Recommended: ‘Buttercrunch’ and ‘Red Sails’
Signet marigolds make small edible flowers with a citrusy scent.
This perennial is great for nibbling in the garden. It also makes a soothing cup of tea for a blustery fall day. Beware that it spreads rapidly and can take over a bed within a few years.
Mulch retains moisture in the soil, suppresses weeds, mitigates erosion, and adds organic matter back to the soil as it decomposes. Good mulch materials include straw, leaf mold (leaves that have decomposed over two winters), grass clippings, newspaper, cardboard, and burlap. Wood chips don’t decompose quickly enough to be useful for annual crops. Come next spring, their presence complicates the tilling of the soil.
Who knew flowers were edible! Nasturtium makes a colorful, peppery addition to any salad.
Like dill, parsley is a host plant to several different butterfly larvae. It’s great for making tabbouleh and gazpacho. It’s also great for freshening your breath! Flat leaf parsley, as opposed to curly, is preferred by most chefs.
Few non-gardeners are aware that a green pepper is just a red pepper that’s been picked before it’s ripe. ‘Jimmy Nardello’ is great because it can be strung on a ristra as you would a cayenne pepper, but it’s not at all piquant or spicy. After drying it, fry it and salt it for a savory treat.
Finding a pole bean that will endure the shade of a cornfield is no mean task. The first thing to look for, then, is the word cornfield in its name, e.g. ‘Cherokee Cornfield Bean.’ Choose a variety that yields good dry beans, since harvesting them fits well with a fall seed-saving lesson.
We’ve experimented with a number of different types of corn in the three sisters system. Sweet corn tastes delicious, but there’s only a very short window when it’s at its peak. Popcorn is far more forgiving. It will stand in the field for a few weeks after it reaches maturity. It also provides a great lesson on the three different types of corn: flint, dent, and sweet. Kids and unsuspecting thieves are both equally surprised to learn of the difference. Be sure to choose a tall variety so that the beans don’t choke it out. Recommended: ‘Pennsylvania Dutch Butter’
The nectar of spring sage flowers is a favorite of both pollinating bees and schoolyard kids. The leaves make a great addition to your roasted butternut squash.
May-blooming tulips are timed well for lessons on pollination and the garden ecosystem. Choose two complimentary colors, such as yellow and deep purple, for a striking display.
Many school cafeterias around the country are able to get fresh local spinach at a decent price. Even so, many Food Service Directors choose not to purchase it because students don’t eat it. Plant it in late September, let it overwinter in the garden, then harvest small leaves in early April for a flavorful salad. Students will come back for more. Recommended: ‘Space’
Strawflower is a favorite with kids for its crinkly flowers. It’s also an everlasting, so it keeps its color when it dries, brightening up the bleakest mid-winter.
Sugar Snap Peas are the first seeds to be planted in the garden. Kids love planting the green seeds on St. Patrick’s Day. Choose a variety that matures early. This way, students have several weeks of splendid harvest before school ends. The plants will then finish their production in time for carrots to be planted in their place. Choose a bush variety to eliminate the need for trellising. Recommended: ‘Sugar Ann’
Sunflowers attract beneficial insects, grow to gargantuan heights, and have edible seeds! If birds are getting to your sunflowers before you do, slip some panty hose over the head to protect the seeds. Recommended: ‘Mammoth Grey Stripe’
Sweet Alyssum flowers by late April and keeps its honey-scented flowers until after the first frost. It attracts beneficial insects by the hundred, so getting it into the garden early provides both fodder for a great lesson on insect ID, and consistent protection for the rest of the garden.
The sweet potato is more closely related to the morning glory than a standard potato. Students love finding the central crown of the plant in the fall and then digging up the tangle of edible roots.
Thyme flowers in April and is a favorite of many beneficial insects. Its stems make a great addition to chowders and soups.
Tithonia, or Mexican Sunflower, makes a great cut flower for a bouquet. Even better, it attracts a variety of butterflies, particularly the Tiger Swallowtail. It grows over 6’ tall with dozens of 4” blooms all around.
This isn’t your grandmother’s turnip. These little treasures have the texture of water chestnuts. Slice them raw into a salad as you would a radish. Salad turnips stand in the field better than radishes and taste better, too! Recommended: ‘Oasis’ or ‘Hakurei’
The bedrock of Western civilization, wheat spends most of its life looking like your neighbor’s un-mown lawn. Plant in mid-May so that it comes ready for the beginning of school. Then, give students the opportunity to harvest, thresh, and winnow it.
‘Butternut’ squash is one of the best varieties to grow around the base of your popcorn and pole beans. It shades out the weeds and usually produces a few sizeable squash per plant (though you don’t want anything too sizeable else the neighborhood whippersnappers smash it on your sidewalk). This is one of the few plants we grow that can’t be eaten directly from the garden. But the flavor that develops while roasting is well worth the extra effort.
Zinnia is another great cut flower for bouquets and is known to attract beneficial insects.