Cleaning up a school garden after a prolonged absence or period of neglect can seem like an overwhelming task, particularly now as schools are working out how to reopen safely. Although it seems the world has changed in many ways, school gardens still offer students hands-on, experiential learning opportunities that cannot be found inside four walls. Perhaps now more than ever, it’s important to give children the chance to explore in a garden and to offer spaces for outdoor learning. Here are a few tips for creating a safe and positive garden environment, even if you haven’t been able to work in your school garden in awhile.
Before heading out to the school garden for the first time after a prolonged absence, scout the area for potential hazards. Red Imported Fire Ants (RIFA) are notorious for moving into raised bed gardens. Educators will need to reach out to their school administrators or maintenance personnel for help in managing these insect pests.
According to South Carolina state pesticide laws, only licensed pest control operators are permitted to apply pesticides on school-owned property. For more information, consult the Educators’ Guide To Managing Red Imported Fire Ants (Solenopsis Invicta) In School Or Community Gardens.
Occasionally, the corners of raised beds may be broken by lawn mowers or other equipment, check that these are in place, and do not pose a threat or danger to students. Raised beds made with long pieces of rebar or other metal stakes should be capped and secured to avoid injuries.
Tall weeds make the perfect cover for wildlife such as mice, snakes, and other critters. See Clemson Extension Home & Garden Factsheet 2362 “Wildlife Control” for tips on managing these animals. Be sure to wear gloves when handling old nursery pots or lifting items off the ground.
Stack and store pots out of the weather or recycle them at a local garden center. Remove any containers or debris where water can collect. Mosquitoes can be pests around school gardens, find tips for reducing mosquito breeding grounds in the Clemson Extension HGIC Factsheet 2435 Mosquito Control In and Around The Home.
Rain barrels or cisterns on school grounds should be cleaned regularly, especially after a long period of disuse. Read more on the maintenance of rain barrels and cisterns in HGIC 1729 Factsheet: Rainwater Harvesting Systems Guidance For Schoolyard Applications.
Stomp the Weeds
Once potential hazards have been removed, begin cleaning up the area around the outside of the raised bed gardens.
An electric or gas-powered string trimmer makes quick work of cutting weeds down around raised bed gardens. Sheet mulching is an alternative that does not require any equipment other than some cardboard and organic mulching material such as bagged or bulk wood chips, shredded hardwood mulch, leaves, straw, or hay.
Start by saving enough cardboard to cover the area around the garden. Remove tape and plastic labels from cardboard boxes. Place sheets of cardboard over the weeds to flatten and cover them. Overlap the edges of the cardboard to avoid gaps in coverage.
Students will enjoy stomping on the cardboard to flatten the weeds beneath. A thick layer of mulch, compost, leaves, or straw should be placed on top of the cardboard to cover the garden area. Create a mulched apron of between three and four feet around the entire raised bed.
Start with A Clean Slate
Carefully lift drip irrigation lines out of beds and set aside. Completely remove all plant material from raised beds. Shake excess soil off roots and into the beds. Wear gloves to remove weeds that can be easily pulled out by hand. For stubborn weeds, use a hand trowel, shovel or hoe to dig them out. All spent plants and weeds should be bagged and placed in the trash.
If weeds are overwhelming, a licensed pest control operator may apply an herbicide over the entire area. All label directions should be carefully followed in regards to time between application and reentry for vegetable gardening.
After weeds are under control, add any combination of bagged compost, finished worm compost, leaves, straw, or garden soil to fill the raised beds to within one inch of the top. More soil volume means less watering as new plants grow. An adult should incorporate a slow-release organic fertilizer into each bed according to package directions. The typical recommendation is about one cup per 4’x 4′ raised bed. Mix the fertilizer into the soil with gloved hands or trowel before planting. For more information, refer to the School Gardening for SC Educators Seasonal Planting Guide and Calendar “Building Healthy Soil” section. See also the Clemson Extension Home & Garden Information Center Hot Topic “Starting A School Garden- Raised Bed Basics.”
Reassemble and lay irrigation lines back into the beds. Turn the hose on and check irrigation lines and hoses for leaks or damage before replacing drip irrigation lines in the garden. Replace or repair damaged hoses or irrigation lines.
Ready Set Grow
Refer to the Clemson Extension Seasonal Planting Guide & Calendar to plant seasonally appropriate crops for school gardens. Also, the Clemson University Home & Garden Information Center Factsheet “Planning A Garden” offers seasonal planting dates for most crops that gardeners may want to grow.
Feeling overwhelmed by the amount of work to do to get garden beds back in shape? Remember that the school garden is all about the community, and it does not have to be perfect!
Reach out to co-workers, parents, volunteers, or even local landscape companies to lend a hand to get the garden beds back in working order. Many hands make light work!
*School Gardening for SC Educators Seasonal Planting Guide and Calendar Upstate Region and School Gardening for SC Educators Seasonal Planting Guide and Calendar Lowcountry Region are technical guides that are part of the online course “School Gardening for SC Educators” and may be purchased online.
Amy L. Dabbs, Clemson Extension School & Community Gardening Coordinator, Zack Snipes, Clemson Extension Commercial Horticulture Agent, and Patricia Whitener, Clemson Extension 4-H Youth Development Agent