Water, Water Everywhere, Providing Drops to Drink

SC-thumbHow can schools access resources as you improve your environmentally sustainable practices? Our overarching goal, of course, is to take care of the earth so that the earth can take care of us. The earth provides air to breathe, water to drink, food to eat, and space to live for each of us, but we are all aware that these resources are being severely challenged. We need to address these challenges in multiple ways.

When you are learning and teaching about water issues, consider Philadelphia Water Department (PWD) resources for education and for stormwater (rainwater) management project support. Our collective dependence on water is a watershed-wide issue, crossing city and even state boundaries and requiring a regional approach as we experience current needs, solve problems, and plan for the future.

To understand and teach about water, first, understand where you are in your watershed. The Philadelphia Water Department has an interactive map that places you within the watersheds of Philadelphia. Most of us are in the Delaware River Watershed because our local rivers are tributaries to the Delaware River.

Second, understand where your drinking water comes from, where your sewage is treated, and where the stormwater on your school property travels as it makes its way to the local river. The Philadelphia Water Department educational programs for teachers and for children provide opportunities throughout the year. There are field trips to Fairmount Water Works or water treatment plants, teacher workshops or stormwater best management tours, and online resources, including an urban watershed curriculum. Their website is a hub for PWD educational opportunities.

Third, increase management of your own stormwater. By doing so, you can recharge ground water, reduce flooding in the watershed, beautify your school campus and improve the local natural environment. The Green City Clean Waters Program in Philadelphia is a plan for managing the stormwater in Philadelphia. This model can be replicated throughout the region, and the tools and green infrastructures highlighted on this website can inform your conversation with professionals as you take charge of the water resource raining down on your school property.

Philadelphia Water Department can be a resource for your school via its website, the educational programs, and a network of partnerships as we all protect the water upon which we depend.  The Green Schools Program is particularly helpful.

A few of the many other leaders addressing water issues include:

  • The Franklin Institute manages the Philadelphia Climate & Urban Systems Partnership (Philly CUSP); a community of local stakeholders who share a passion for engaging residents in climate change issues, and interact frequently to learn how to do so better.  For more information, email CUSP@fi.edu.
  • The Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University reaches the public through The Center for Environmental Policy, using evening Town Square programs and Urban Sustainability Forums.
  • The Overbrook Environmental Education Center successfully turned a brownfield into a showcase of best management practices for stormwater, and is a hub of sustainable environmental and technological education and activity.
  • See more links to area resources on the Teacher Resources page of this website.

Sustainable Vegetable Gardens: Deciding What to Plant

SC-thumbSo you have, or want to start, a School Sustainable Vegetable Garden. How do you choose what to plant?

Well, what do you dream of planting? Tomatoes, corn, squash, green beans, and carrots?  You and your students will learn from every experiment. But there are some plants that work better than others given the growing seasons, limited adult help, and the restrictions of a typical school year ending in June and beginning in September.

First, think about what your goal is for involving the children. One goal is to directly plant, pick, and eat. In the spring, between the start of warm weather and the end of the school year (Pennsylvania), you can successfully grow lettuce, spinach, radishes, and similar quickly growing, cool weather vegetables. Children are intrigued and engaged in picking and directly tasting lettuce, and excited about finding the biggest radish that can be pulled out of the ground. Wash, slice, and share it within the classroom. If, in addition, you can plant in the spring and harvest in the fall, your options greatly increase (see below).

This spring harvest of quickly growing veggies can also be successful in the fall. If you plant quickly growing cold weather vegetables the first or second week of school, you can comfortably harvest before it gets too cold. With a bit of care (a tarp or bed of straw over the vegetables during a cold snap), you can harvest into November. Water, thin plants, and weed your garden as necessary.

With more adult effort, peas or green beans can reliably be planted by Saint Patty’s Day and harvested before the end of school. This creates two additional challenges: wildlife and tall plant growth. Birds, rabbits, and other animals LOVE to eat these seeds or young plants, so, protect your vegetables by using deer mesh or some other animal barrier. To give height for plants to grow, create a simple stretch of strings, purchase a structure such as a trellis, or plant by a fence.

If you have summertime adult assistance and can plan ahead for the second year, plant in the spring for a fall harvest. With minimal help of one hour a week (watering, harvesting, weeding, etc.), you can grow tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, red beets, Swiss chard, zucchini, and carrots. When you start school in the fall, you may have a bunch of weeds, but hardy plants will survive, and might “surprise” students as they weed.

Some seemingly-ideal plants don’t work well in a school garden. Corn is highly attractive to raccoons and is likely not to survive. Pumpkins need a tremendous amount of space.

Opportunities abound for curricular connections with a garden. Consider teaching “the parts of a plant” by growing different edible parts: lettuces are leaves. Peas are seeds. Radishes are roots. Cherry tomatoes for a fall crop are also excellent to “pick and eat.”

Whatever you decide, start a School Sustainable Vegetable Garden this year. Dream of the garden you want, experiment with the seeds and space that you have, and nurture adult help that supports this excellent educational opportunity for your students.

Managing School vegetable gardens: who gardens?

SC-thumbSchool vegetable gardens provide spectacular opportunity for children to explore nature. Nothing is more engaging than a worm crawling through the soil or a praying mantis clinging to a bean plant. Real time explorations reinforce where our food comes from, as well as classroom knowledge on soil, plants, animals, weather and seasons. The educational benefits are hands-on and myriad.

But there’s a balance that has to be established with a school garden. One teacher and a rotation of classes aren’t enough to maintain a successful vegetable garden. How much of the work is completed by the teacher and the students, and how much of the work is completed by other adults? Typically the teacher provides all the resources for the lesson, but with a garden, this model doesn’t work.

There are two schools where I’m supporting sustainable vegetable gardens. The preschool garden at House at Pooh Corner is small enough that an extra hour of work once a week within the context of my morning at the school is sufficient to manage the growing area. Teachers take charge of extra watering and harvesting during the week, and occasionally another adult stakes the tomatoes and sunflowers, or puts a new fence around the garden.

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At The Montessori School, the eight 4 x 4 square gardens, along with two 8 x 3 toddler gardens, are more than one teacher with rotating classes can manage. For the last couple of years, we have been experimenting with what works. I do most of the gardening with the students during the year. Additional adults help with summer gardening and with heavier work, such as building the fence or replacing the wood of the garden plots.

As the garden thrives and is used more directly within the classroom curricula, we concurrently need to strengthen adult help. There’s opportunity for school families to participate, benefiting the families as the school garden is supported. When families get involved, community connections are increased, parent and child experiences are nurtured, parent gardening skills are strengthened, community knowledge of growing local food increases, and the garden is available for classroom use.

Two enriching opportunities for families are an after school garden club, and summer family gardening. This fall parents and students gardened together. We had fun together, and with this weekly extra hour of help, gardening needs were met. We harvested herbs, tomatoes, radishes, lettuce, and we sifted school compost for nutritional use in the garden. Children were thrilled finding sow bugs, meal worms, grubs and spiders. As we continue to experiment with families gardening this coming spring, I hope this will lead to parents seeing the enjoyment and benefit of taking a week to water, weed and harvest in the summer.

School communities embracing a school sustainable vegetable garden is a win/win/win/win opportunity: children are exploring outside; parents are nurturing their connection with their child and their community while also being outside in a garden; during the summer, families get to take home produce they helped grow and the garden is supported, ready for fall harvest by the children in the new school year.