Over the past six months, I've found inspiration and deepened my knowledge about teaching in school gardens through these three online certification courses:
Growing Gardens' "School Garden Coordinator Certificate Training" via Oregon State University (6 weeks, $300);
"Teaching in Nature’s Classroom: Principles of Garden-Based Education", offered by Erica Krug & Nate Larson through Wisconsin's School Garden Network (14 weeks, free!); and,
LifeLab's "Life Lab-Certified School Garden Educator" courses (four 4-week courses plus coaching, $1200).
Why take courses like this? For me, it’s inspiring to see other school garden programs out there. I’ve been coordinating and grant-funding a garden program for the past five years at Salt Spring Elementary. Last year, we became a “garden school”, with all eight K-5 classes getting an hour of Garden Club time each week. The school expanded to include 6th grade and all 10 classes signed up again this year, plus the School District and I found some funds to support gardens in the other eight schools across the Gulf Islands (www.schoolgarden.ca).
I got really burned out at the end of this past schoolyear and I was really missing my family. So, the day after school ended, I packed up my kids and drove to my Mom’s farm in Parkdale, Oregon, where we stayed for most of the summer, visiting cousins and old friends, leaving my stacks of children’s garden work, resources, grant reporting, etc. back in B.C. up in my room. All I can say is, thank goodness for automatic irrigation systems!
Over the summer, I participated in the Oregon State University's online School Garden Coordinator Certification course, with the goal of re-energizing my commitment to this work. It helped, and I decided to sign up for more courses over the fall months to keep new ideas and connections and my own curiosity and interest alive.
Sometimes, even when surrounded by kids, I feel quite alone in this work. Plus, I live on a small island (plus Covid-era), so that might add to it! Anyways, it feels good to know that there are so many well-intentioned people doing amazing school farm & garden-based learning out there, and I love how these courses help me bring fun and creative activities to the classes each day, as well as deeply acknowledging the importance of where I’m putting so much energy.
So, here's what I learned from the first course: The OSU / GROWING GARDENS' continuing education course was super-academic and provided linked articles and short video presentations by various experts and experienced school garden educators from around Oregon. Oregon really has it growing on, with a Farm-to-School Statewide Coordinator and funding for school gardens tied to gaming/lottery funds.
The most useful take-away for me was a completed Action Plan, which clarified my goals for 2021-22 at Salt Spring Elementary! Each of the six weekly modules included coursework to fill in sections of an Action Plan outline -- here's what I ended up with:
> Intro & Action Planning: tap into the deeper mission of why you want to develop a school garden program.
The mission of SSE's school garden is to provide an outdoor environment and activities that enhance academic, physical and social learning for students through growing, preparing and sharing foods, building healthy soil, and stewarding the land for native flora and fauna, in connection with our Island community.
> Community Engagement: increase involvement of diverse stakeholders in the school gardens.
Listing the people and organizations who make this school garden program happen reminded me of how many positive and reciprocal connections we already have at school, local and regional scales. It's time to reach out with a Fall 2021 update & Spring 2022 plan and thank all those individuals and groups.
> Garden Design & Maintenance.
Design improvements for the Hillside Garden include a toolshed, artsy cob benches in the central gathering space, more shade and shelter, better accessibility, compost infrastructure, water & nesting boxes for wildlife and maybe even a duck coop! Garden maintenance happens through monthly family work-parties and hosted Wwoofers.
> Planting plans & seasonal celebrations.
We've figured out what works well. Fall plantings feature favas, garlic, camas, and schoolyard flower bulbs. Early spring plantings grow peas, kale, and potatoes, plus herbs, edible flowers and greens for the June Salad Bar Celebration Lunch. On Earth Day, we plant and care for trees and native plants. June plantings feature the three sisters (popcorn, squash, and dry beans) plus sunflowers for the Halloween Harvest Lunch. We add berries, pollinator plants and nuts to the food forest when we can.
> Using the garden to teach multiple subjects.
I offer two, three-month garden club sessions per year at Salt Spring Elementary (Sept-Nov & March-June), which include an hour of activities for each of the ten classes on a weekly basis, plus two all-school community harvest meals prepared by students with garden produce. Each year, students learn directly from visiting community experts and enjoy farm field trips. From Jan-Mar, I provide chicken/duck hatching and special indoor growing projects for some classes.
> Harvesting & Tasting.
Using food-safe practices, students help prepare foods and cook outdoors each week during garden class. They are always snacking on greens. We share garden products at our school farmstand.
> Funding & Sustainability.
It all costs upwards of $20k. I maintain an annual calendar of grant funders, a database of donors, and run annual online campaigns. Each year, I request student & teacher feedback. Monthly work-bees and regular garden committee emails are essential. Sharing garden stories and continually connecting with community is key.
All in all, I would highly recommend this course in order to clarify your garden plan, link it to peer-reviewed journal evidence for the benefits of school gardening for children, and to get inspired by a number of extraordinary school gardens in Oregon. This was the first year they offered the course online (due to Covid) and I'm super-curious what the experience would have been like in-person in Portland, Oregon, where Growing Gardens has offered a version of this for years, bringing together and inspiring school garden coordinators around the West.