#GrowYourGroceries - I'll help!

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Man in Overalls - Fall: The Best Time to #GrowFood

Here in N Florida, it's time to plant your fall food garden, now through the end of October. When most folks think garden, they think spring: tomatoes, cucumbers, squash, green beans, peppers, etc. While I do love tomatoes, the fall-- here in Jacksonville-- is the most pleasant and bountiful season to grow! In the fall you can grow salad greens like lettuce, arugula, spinach; cooking greens like collards, kale, mustards; root crops (other than potatoes) like turnips, carrots, radishes, beets; the garlic/onion family of crops; and many herbs (other than basil) such as parsley and cilantro, which actually do better in the fall than spring.

But let me back up. Beyond the greater range of fall options, why do I love growing food in the fall? It's simple really: less bugs, less heat, less work, more production, all the while looking gorgeous!

Heat and bugs go together. As the temperature goes down, so do the number of bugs trying to eat up your garden.  And, as the heat drops each passing day, it becomes more and more pleasant to check on and harvest from your food garden, so you're more likely to actually benefit from what your garden produces.

There's less work in a fall food garden than in a spring/summer garden because none of the fall crops require staking and tying; plus there are fewer weeds sprouting.

In terms of production, you get far more per square foot in the cool season than you will in the warm season. For instance, in a square foot in a warm season garden if you grow green beans, you'll likely yield a handful or two. In the same space in the fall, you could yield as much as 12 heads of lettuce.

And then there are things like kale and collards! Plant them once and harvest for six to seven months! It's easy to yield at least 5-6+ bunches per plant, a value of $2-3 each. Largely due to to the fall season, I was able to grow 400 lbs in my 80 square foot food garden, a total value of roughly $1600 of organic produce.

Last but not least, all the fall crops "stay in their place" so to speak; they don't vine or climb* all over the place, so you can count on a more manageable, kempt-looking garden. (*Okay, Sugar snaps do climb and like a trellis, but they don't go all over the place.)

For all these reasons, I love growing in the fall!

To help you plan your fall food garden, here's my planting guide that outlines raised bed plant spacing and seasonal crops for food gardening in N Florida. Also, since your garden is still likely a hot mess from what's left of your warm season garden (especially on the heals of Hurricane Irma), here's a little how-to video about cleaning up for the next season.



If I can support you in growing food for self and neighbor this fall, let me know. I offer full service food gardening support services here in NE FL and can support food gardeners in other places remotely via live-stream video conference food gardening lessons and Q&A consultations.

#GrowYourGroceries - with Overalls Support

-- 
Respectfully,

Nathan Ballentine (Man in Overalls)
Urban Farmer, Entrepreneur, Educator, Community Organizer
Growing in Jacksonville, FL
Connecting globally

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Monday, August 14, 2017

Man in Overalls- #GrowInYourFrontYard #GrowYourGroceries

I grow my groceries in my front yard.

I've been growing in front yards since I was eight years old.

It started that way simply because that's where the best sunlight was, right out front.

Let me ask, if you're honest, where's your best sunlight?

For, I'd say, 90% of Americans with yards, their best sunlight is in the front yard.

"Yeah, but..." I hear a lot of people say, "...if I planted it out there, people would take my tomatoes!" Like their neighborhood is especially prone to vegetable thieves. Like, maybe there is a vegetable-eating gang of young people that roams their streets, who they're afraid to talk about. (Which, if you do have a vegetable-eating gang in your neighborhood, please tell me about it because I definitely want to meet these kids!)

Anyway, as I was going to say: if you're afraid to grow in your front yard where you've got good sun, and you instead choose a protected (albeit shady) spot, you won't grow much at all, so you won't have to worry about people stealing anything. Voila, perfect. Theft averted!

But, I was in the middle of a story. Let me back up.

Because I grew a vegetable garden in the front yard as a child, I became known as "that kid who gardens on the corner."

I never had anything stolen out of my garden as a kid. But it was in a "quiet" suburban neighborhood. And there was no sidewalk.

But then my elderly neighbor who had been campaigning for a sidewalk on our block for a decade finally got her wish. So then people walked right by my vegetable garden. And, as it happened, our street actually was a short-cut between the "projects" and a shopping mall. So guess what happened after the sidewalk was built?
...I got to know more of my neighbors, plus some folks who walked through. And, I learned that food gardens are one of the best icebreakers for meeting people, learning recipes, and hearing stories about other people's families. And, still, no one ever stole anything.

Well, there was that one time around Thanksgiving, during the 2008/9 financial collapse when -- I can't remember, did I tell somebody they could pick some greens?-- someone harvested three collard plants down to the nubs, seemingly in the middle of the night. So, I lost like $3 of collard greens. Maybe. Meanwhile I had another 50 plants laden with greens that went untouched.

But, after all, that was in a suburban neighborhood.

In 2011, my wife and I moved near downtown into a duplex, our first home. Our landlord allowed us to build and grow a garden, and the best sunlight was, again, in the front yard. So, there we grew.
There was heavy foot traffic on a sidewalk across the street, and a long, long red light stopped people immediately in front of our food garden for minutes on end. My wife and I weighed and recorded everything we harvested for the sake of research. Out of our 80-square-foot raised bed food garden, we harvested 390lbs of veggies and herbs in 9 months. (Here's a little press release my friend wrote up about that garden.) We think, but aren't sure, that someone took a single head of lettuce.

Next, in order to be close by TFN's iGrow Whatever You Like youth farm, we moved to "D-Block," a section of a neighborhood that was the "hood" by most definitions: boys walked the street who were probably selling; ladies walked the streets who were, also, probably selling (something different); one of our neighbors regularly ran down the street playing imaginary football with himself.

Nevertheless, by this time, we realized that not only did front-yard food gardens afford the best sunlight and, therefore, productivity, and give us a great way to meet our neighbors; front-yard gardens also permitted us to see and tend our food garden in small easy ways almost daily,  so weeds couldn't sneak in, nor could produce go bad before we noticed it ripening. (This deserves it's own post, so stay tuned). So, once again we planted in the front yard, right by the street (both inside & outside the chain-linked fence).
I remember one day when I was out pulling carrots and cutting lettuce for dinner, bent over, back to the street. These two big guys came walking up on me; I just caught them out the corner of my eye; they'd kind of snuck up on me. I had that sinking feeling like "Oh s***" as I slowly stood up and pivoted to face them. And you know what happened?

This guy, the bigger one, he smiles, the glasses on his face rise on his cheeks and he said, "Evening, how you doing? It's a cool thing you're doing with the garden. I like it."

I don't believe we had a single snap pea taken from our garden in the hood.
- - -

So, as you might imagine, when we moved to Jacksonville, FL because, as is usually the case, our best sunlight was in the front yard, and since we wanted our groceries growing "in-sight and in-mind," and because we wanted to get to know our neighbors, we, once again, decided to grow our groceries in the front yard.

This past week, someone took a bush full of habeƱero peppers, a definite disappointment because our buddy, Chad, had planned to make hot sauce. But, to keep things in perspective, the loss of the habeƱeros brings our total lifetime losses up to about a full $10.  In 25-ish years of growing our groceries in front yards we have harvested, conservatively, $10,000 of produce. My household has eaten its fill, and we've given hundreds of pounds away to friends, family, neighbors, passersby, and food pantries. Easily $10,000, maybe more. Any loss pales in comparison to the bounty of our front-yard food gardens.

So, I'll say it again...

#GrowYourGroceries

#GrowInYourFrontYard

#GrowYourCommunity

#GrowYourFaithInHumanity But moreso, just

#GrowWhereTheSunShines, please.

For your own sake as well as for the sake of that gang of vegetable-eating teenagers in your neighborhood.

- - - 

Nathan Ballentine (Man in Overalls)
Urban Farmer, Entrepreneur, Educator, Community Organizer
Growing in Jacksonville, FL
Connecting globally

Man in Overalls on FB
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If you would like to receive my "semi-monthly" blogs by email, which include a story and food gardening tip please email with subject line "Count Me In."

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Man in Overalls - Back to Basics: What You Need to Know to Grow, The Big Picture

After making sure you've got adequate sunlight, the next two things necessary for food gardening success -- as any kindergartner can tell you-- are good soil and, you guessed it, water. These are your food growing basics: sunlight, soil, and water.

However, before I jump into talking about soil, which I'll do in my next post, let me take a step back. You see, I've realized that I could draft a book by writing it a blog-post at a time. Originally I had conceived this "What You Need To Know To Grow" series as several blog posts about sunlight, soil, and water-- with "sequels" about how to plant, deal with pests, what/when to harvest. Not more than 5-6 posts in total.

But then I thought: rather than stop there, what if I expanded beyond the basics to share my own "bigger picture" perspective that helps ensure my food gardening projects are bountiful & successful in a holistic sense?  ...my secret food gardening recipe so to speak.  And, of course, in keeping with my style, I'd plan to share stories & personal experiences to give you something to anchor the facts onto.  What do you think? Should I do it?

To give you a sneak preview of this possible "What You Need to Know to Grow" book, here's an outline sketch:
In short, as I approach any food garden project, this is my triple-lens through which I think about things: agriculture, nature, and people. Any successful food garden project requires a synergy between these three elements.

Agriculturally, you need to have sunlight, good soil, and adequate water. It's also helpful, of course, to know the technical basics like how to plant. Regarding nature, at a minimum, you need to plant in season. Also, knowing about your existing soil, adapting your practices to the regional climate & terrain, and attracting beneficial insects will make you more successful and your work easier. Finally, it's essential to consider the people you're trying to engage (even if that's just you). What do they like to eat? Where is the kitchen? Is the food garden space inviting? How easy is it to maintain?

Say you get your grand-kids excited about growing a garden (people), and you were a successful gardener up north (agriculture), so you just do what you did there. But things go wrong: your lettuce gets eaten up by bugs, and your tomatoes yellow and die right before your eyes. What happened!? It turns out the climate and seasons are entirely different in the Deep South compared to the North, so you planted at the wrong time of year. Whoops! You forgot about nature. If on the other hand, say you're a great agriculturalist-- even if you integrate natural principles-- you may end up with an uninviting food garden in the far recesses of your backyard full of produce that no one recognizes or will eat.  And, ultimately, since no one feels any real benefit, it will go neglected, be overtaken with weeds, and then, finally, be mowed to the ground. You forgot to think about people.

Let me share a story.
In 2009 right as I launched my food gardening business, I volunteered extensively with a nonprofit to assist a community elder in starting a community garden in a subsidized housing community (in other, less gracious terms, in the "projects"). It was exciting! It was vision of abundance in the midst of a food desert! Tons of kids in the neighborhood- okay, maybe a dozen- came out to join the day we built and planted the garden. In the following weeks, everything grew great because the team of day-of volunteers had brought in great compost, planted things in season, and we kept things well watered in the weeks that followed.
However, after that initial build day (and one more when volunteers planted a bunch of fruit trees), very few people were involved other than Mr. Oliver and I. A few kids ventured over to join us when we were pulling weeds from time to time, but generally it was just the two of us. I got to know folks in the neighborhood hoping to find and cultivate interest in participating, but they saw the garden as "Old Man Oliver's Garden."  As the red chard grew one foot then two feet tall and the spinach plants were beautifully abundant (but no one touched or harvested any of it), I started asking friends in the neighborhood if they wanted some of the produce. "Oh, chard, you say? Oh, that's what that is. I've been wondering. Never heard of it. It's like spinach you say? What's spinach? ...Why don't y'all grow some things that people around here know? Like collard greens and mustards."

I share this story because it's an oft repeated story in the community gardening world. Between us volunteers, we had the agricultural knowledge, and we worked with nature so far as growing in season and planting flowers that attracted beneficial insects. We also had lots of "one-time" volunteers, but the most important people, the community residents themselves had not been considered, consulted, or engaged from the beginning, so the success of the whole community garden project was compromised. (Don't worry. It wasn't a complete "failure," but it certainly wasn't as successful as it could or should have been.)

It takes all three (agricultural best practices, natural systems and cycles, and engaging people "where they're at") to make for a successful food garden project -- be it a community or school garden, an edible landscape, or simply a raised bed or a patio container garden. Like a fire which requires heat, fuel, and air, a food garden can't be wonderfully successful over the long term without paying attention to all three of these key elements: ag, nature, and people.

Next up, let's talk about soil.


#GrowYourGroceries - I'll help!

Nathan, Man in Overalls
Urban Farmer, Entrepreneur, Educator, Community Organizer
Growing in Jacksonville, FL
Connecting Globally

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Man in Overalls - Cafe/Market/Farms: A Growing Dream

It's time I let you in on a dream of mine. It's not fully formed, but neither can it still be understood merely as ingredients in the figurative kitchen cupboard. I think of it as a loaf of bread, not yet baked but certainly mixed and rising. In looking back at my notes, it's a dream I've been workshopping and mulling over for more than two years, a dream born out personal experience and travel, books and conversations. It's a dream shared in parts and pieces (and separately conceived of) by a growing number of people. And, though I am not certain of the path to get there, I'll be walking the road (and building it where necessary) with others bound for the same vision.

Here's a rough sketch to whet your appetite:

My take on this shared dream draws from a mix of personal sources:
  • 2010, I met City Farm Boy in Vancouver. He was growing veggies for 50 families on 8000 square feet (i.e., 1/5th acre). All his customers lived within 1/2mile of his house; most walked to pick up their weekly produce box. This stands in contrast to the current models of local food that rely on farmers driving 5 to 10 to 50 miles into town and 50 customers all driving 2 to 10 to 20 miles to the farmers' market, which-- though better than 1500-- still amounts to a lot of miles. My other takeaway from Vancouver was the number of families he was feeding, 50. Living with my folks at the time, there were 900 households in their neighborhood. At 100% market penetration, that's 18 farmers in a single neighborhood! (Just for vegetables!) Ok, 100% is never reasonable, but what about 5%? That's roughly one micro-farm in each major neighborhood. I'm dreaming of "corner farms" as prevalent as McDonald's.
  • As I reflect on my experience in cultivating Tallahassee Food Network's iGrow Whatever You Like youth farm, I carry a few things with me. First, communities are hungry for beautiful, productive urban agriculture spaces. We had folks who would stop by on their commutes to/from town just to "walk through the garden." Ironically, second, we had a hard time shifting people's life and habit patterns to make veggie purchases at iGrow. Neighbors would walk and drive right by our youth farm on their way to the store to pick up items we grew. Takeaway: to be successful, we have to integrate other habit patterns into any urban ag business model. Think dog walking, morning coffee, socialization, prepared food purchases. I want to capture the atmosphere of a community coffee house but put it in the midst of a beautiful, productive urban farmscape. Lastly, iterating a space, program, and business model in partnership with all involved (youth leaders, neighbors, volunteers, and customers) proved to be an awesome way to develop a model that worked and was supported all, and, interestingly, is in sync with lean startup practices that rely on early/ often customer feedback.
  • A few years ago, I stopped through Growing Power, the flagship "community food center" urban farm in Milwaukee. They sold not only fresh produce, but other grocery basics like milk and eggs, which makes for a multi-purpose food stop. We've got to sell more than produce.
  • In 2015, my wife Mary Elizabeth and I visited the Mondragon Federation of Cooperatives in NW Spain. The big takeway was their "multi-stakeholder" cooperative model, which is the ultimate expression of reconciling and drawing from the expertise of the constituencies necessary to run a boomingly successful business. It takes workers, customers, investors, and community-- all of us collaborating and working in sync to thrive-- and there's already a democratic business structure model for how to do it profitably.
Here's the dream in a nutshell:
A cooperatively-owned chain of cafe-market-farms
Think the atmosphere of a community coffee house, but take away the building and replace it with a Parisian brick-patio cafe space shaded by a grape arbor-- in the midst of a beautiful, intensively productive community farm. The model's core will include a production mini farm that grows for the super-local market, providing a 1-hour or less harvest-to-delivery freshness; a cafe serving prepared food, ideally hot food, smoothies at a minimum; a mini-market with farm-fresh produce complimented with organic "commodity" items like onions and potatoes plus grocery basics like milk and eggs; the space will also serve as base of operations and education for an expanded food gardening business that helps people grow their groceries the easy way (in their own spaces) -- in keeping with my current business model.

Imagine neighbors taking their evening dog walk here.  Can you imagine grabbing your morning coffee or meeting friends for a smoothie? The cafe will serve dinner without a million choices, but instead a daily offering or two based on the farm's bounty. The question will be "how hungry are you?"-- instead of a menu with 47 choices to make. It'll be like going to a friend's for dinner, and the simple menu will keep prices down. I want folks stopping through to buy fresh bread sourced from a local bakery, gardening classes for kids, cooking workshops that start with harvesting veggies right behind them; I see a crew heading out to build food gardens at area homes and businesses. And I see one of these cafe-market-farms in all major neighborhoods. Each cafe-market-farm will be organized as a semi-autonomous (multi-stakeholder) cooperative that brings workers, customers, and community supporters to the table. Autonomous, but not alone, each cafe-market-farm will benefit by affiliation with the others by sharing best practices in a "learning network" and synchronized back-of-the-houses. The cafe-market-farm coops will invest 10% of their profits into a "pay it forward" model to financially capitalize additional cafe-market-farms and invest 5-10% into the community as a way to reciprocate to the community for its patronage. We start in Jacksonville with the flagship, get the single cafe-market-farm model tight, expand to several across town, get the coop-of-coops model tight, and then head down I-10 with it all the way to Houston.

There are plenty more details of the dream that's emerging and more roots most especially the partners and collaborators. Some of us overlap in our ideas almost completely, others less so; some of us are already working together, others not yet or in fledgling ways, but allow me to name some folks in Jacksonville with whom I'm excited to be talking and mutually supporting in the urban ag (& good food) arenas: Betty Burney, Laureen Husband, Karen Landry, Kevin Anderson, Diallo Sekou, Allen Skinner, Angela Tenbroeck, Corey McNair, Melissa Beaudry, Valerie Hermann, Don Justice, Ju-Coby Pittman, Sylvia Powell, Ingrid Mathurin, Teena Anderson. Thank you all for advancing my thinking and for doing what you do that inspires us all towards the greater good food vision. I look forward to working with these folks, those to whom they're tied, and many more.

--And, while I'm dreaming, if my cafe-market-farm dream is a tree (so to speak), perhaps even a cluster of trees, there's a forest idea to go along with this dream, but I'll leave that for another time. For now, I'll leave you with a sketch of a possible cooperative structuring for you to consider.

Allow me to close with a food gardening tip:
I've long used 5/8" rebar cut to 6'8" lengths to stake my tomatoes. If you prune the suckers, like I explain in this How-To video, you can grow tomatoes very close together in order to maintain order and achieve a much higher overall yield/space than a single tomato plant in a cage that inevitably escapes and grows all over the place. But that's old news. What's new are these amazing ties I just found (in the picture). They loop back on themselves, and save tons of time compared to using tie tape, string, or cutting strips of old rags, like I did as a kid. Worth checking out.

If I can help you #GrowYourGroceries, let me know.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Man in Overalls - Back to Basics: What You Need to Know to Grow, Part 1

Sunlight, y'all. You need sunlight to #GrowYourGroceries. 

Sunlight, like this:
This, on the other hand, is not a "nice spot" for your food garden:
Photo courtesy James Willamor
Yes, I jest, but only because I've encountered, truly, countless people for whom either hope springs eternal or who, honestly, struggle to understand the connection between food garden productivity and sunlight. Namely, food crops (with, noted, a few exceptions) do not yield without at least 4-5 hours of direct sunlight.

Let me give you the scenario. It's the same story every time. It happened years ago when I launched my food gardening business, and it happened, literally, last week. I show up for a food garden consultation or dream session to take a look, offer edible ideas, and answer questions. Or, then again, maybe I'm there to install a raised bed or simply to deliver a load of my Magic Mix. I knock on the door, and I'm warmly welcomed. Then, promptly, either through the house or around the outside via a side gate, I'm shown to the back yard. The front yard had adequate sunlight. Immediately outside their backdoor, the sunlight was still, at least, marginal, but we don't stop there. "Here!" they say, "Right here!" we've walked into the dark recess of their backyard, a forest more or less, often under a giant oak tree. "I want to put the garden here because I can't get the grass to grow."

To be fair, often the spot they select does get some direct sunlight, an hour or two, maybe, through the gaps between several trees. Or, perhaps, their pecan tree hasn't leafed back out in the spring, and so, temporarily, it seems the spot will have plenty of sunlight for their garden. So, perhaps it's not the lack of understanding that food crops need sunlight to produce. (Okay, probably :). But, maybe, folks don't know how to calculate how much sunlight will shine on a spot without having to hang around all day and take notes. If that's your situation, keep reading.

To check your available light, track the arc of the sun from horizon to horizon, then divide it into 12 segments. Each is roughly one hour. Along the arc, how many clear segments are there? Another way to think about this is to “guesstimate” the fraction of the sun’s arc that’s open to the sky, then multiply by 12.  For example, if the eastern horizon is entirely clear, but there's a house to the west, that's half a day's sun: 1/2 x 12 = 6hours. Or, more likely, you have trees or shrubs on both sides of your lot, so only one third of the sun’s arc is open to the sky above your garden site: 1/3 x 12 = 4 hours of sunlight.  Note: the sun always dips towards the south (moreso in winter, less in summer), so trees, tall plants, and buildings will cast a longer shadow (to the north) in December than in June.

If that still doesn't make sense, call me, and, if you're in NE FL, I can come out for a Food Garden Consultation to help you choose a spot for your garden, offer edible ideas, and answer all your other questions while we're at it.




Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Man in Overalls - Back to Basics: What to Do When it Freezes in N FL

Planning for Spring
I'm writing this quick note to let you know about the probable freeze tonight in north Florida. Here's the short version: If you've got tender warm-season plants growing (think tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, squash, and the like), water thoroughly and then throw a sheet over your warm-season veggies & tropical fruit trees (especially if they've only been in the ground 1-2 years).

I can't count how many people I've met who have a complex about "killing plants" and who think, "I don't have a green thumb." What they don't realize is that anyone (EVERYONE!) who grows their own groceries is well-versed in killing crops (myself not-withstanding). Why do you think there are entire USDA funding streams for crop loss insurance and crop-loss loans? Even the best of farmers-- much less gardeners-- inadvertently kill things from time to time.

On the topic of freezes, a few years back (2010 I believe), I was up late organizing a kids food gardening workshop when I suddenly remembered it was supposed to freeze that night. Being 11pm or midnight already, I googled the temperature and discovered to my chagrin that it was already 27 degrees outside! I had some beautiful lettuces I had intended to harvest, so I rushed outside with a knife and a flashlight. Sure enough, the lettuces were crispy and frozen. I cut the largest ones and hustled back inside where I attempted to "save" the frozen lettuces by thawing them in running water. They melted into a mushy slime like I'd thrown them in boiling water. Ruined! (Mind you, I did this after I had "hung up my sign" as they say. I was, at this point a "professional food gardener.")

Resigned by my failure, I went to bed. The next morning, I went outside to inspect the rest of the lettuces (and other cold-season crops)-- expecting total crop failure. Much to my surprise, all the smaller lettuces (which I had not attempted to save!) had thawed slowly via sunlight filtered through the pine trees towards the east and had gone right on growing without a hitch: all fine! How did that happen!?

And then I remembered: cold-season crops (see my "What Can You Grow in a Square" resource for a list) are actually able to freeze solid and unfreeze (assuming the temperature isn't down past 25) and go on growing just fine. The trick is the thawing. If they warm up slowly, their cells do not burst. If, however, whether by a flash-unthawing by water or by overly-warm direct sunlight right at dawn, the plant's cell walls crack and burst resulting in a destroyed crop. This is a large part of the reason why farmers cover cold-season crops for freezes with row cover; it's not so much that it keeps their crops warmer (though it does, barely). The real value of row cover is that it slows the warm-up process, so the plants are not flash-melted by the warming dawn sunlight.

But all that ^ is only about cold-season crops, which is not the cause of worry tonight. They'll be fine.

Warm-season crops, on the other hand, are vulnerable to any and all temperatures under 32 degrees. So if you have crops growing late into the fall/winter (next year) or you've already put out spring plants and we get a late-season light spring freeze (like tonight)...
  • If you're close to the River or downtown/near lots of concrete or your garden is somewhat sheltered from the north or your garden is on a slope, you'll probably be okay, but just to be safe....
  • On the other hand, if you're further from the urban core or your garden is in an open field or it has no protection from the north or your garden is in a low spot, you'll almost definitely get some freezing temperatures, so...
Either way, you should do at least the first of these two things:
  1. Water thoroughly before nightfall. Most freeze damage is caused by dehydration.
  2. Cover the most vulnerable or most tender warm-season plants (and tropical fruit trees) with a blanket, buckets, or something else to keep a small insulated air pocket to protect your plants. (Don't worry about yet-to-sprout seeds. They're protected under the soil).
If you're a visual learner, here's the same basic info in my How-to video I did with the FL Dept of Ag:


#HappyGrowing
#GrowYourGroceries

PS- if you (or someone you know) is interested in subscribing to my "Overalls On Call" seasonal Food Garden Tips, Advisories, and Q&A Support by text, email, or video-- which will include  advisories-- I'm going to be beta testing it with a handful of customers in the next few weeks. The price tag is $25/month. (If you're signed up for a maintenance plan, you'll get this included)

Friday, February 10, 2017

Man in Overalls - How to Start a School Garden: Design

Before you get to build your school garden like this,
before you can help kids get their hands dirty like this,
 or teach kids in your school garden like this,
there are a few things you've got to take care of first.

The #1 most important thing you've got to do is build your team. I say- with no exaggeration-- that human infrastructure is THE most important aspect of developing a successful school garden. But, I already wrote about building your school garden team last time. Assuming you're on track with that, a simultaneous step is to begin developing your school garden design.

Here are a few things to should consider as you develop a school garden design:

Purpose
  • In your school garden interest meeting, one of the first questions you should ask is: "Why are you interested in a school garden?" Interestingly, this question serves two purposes. First, it helps the team gel because there will likely be a lot of overlap in answers. This will lend itself to a sense of shared purpose. Secondly, use these answers to guide your design-- with regard to size & features as well as programmatic elements. For example, if teachers want to hold class in the garden, there should be an "outdoor classroom" aspect. Another way of saying this is that the best physical designs help programmatic design dreams come to fruition.
Existing Features, Life Flows & Patterns
  • Where do kids run and play? Don't get in the way.
  • Where are the existing footpaths worn-down through the grass? That might be where your pathways should be-- but definitely not where your beds or fruit trees should go.
  • Is there a bench outside for student/administrator 1-on-1 conversations? Could it be incorporated into the garden?
Location
  • Sunlight I. In order to grow, plants need sunlight. Food crops require 4-5 hours of direct sunlight as a bare minimum. 
  • Sunlight II. Here in the northern hemisphere, the sun dips towards the south (moreso in winter, less in summer), so tall objects will cast shadows (to the north)-- especially in the winter.  Think about this when locating your garden next to buildings, near trees, and when thinking about where to plant fruit trees or tall crops (like sunflowers).
  • Sunlight III. In Florida, given our extreme heat, if you have to choose, it's better to have morning sun and afternoon shade than the opposite.
  • Water. Is there a water faucet within 25-50ft of your food garden? If not, is there a way to get one installed?  Are you going to run a micro-irrigation system? Be sure to leave a clear path if you need to run pipe underground for a new faucet.
  • Visibility. The more visible a food garden, the more successful it will be. Think "front yard," not "back yard." My personal raised bed food gardens are immediately next to my front sidewalk; therefore, I walk by my garden daily. When there are weeds, I pull them; it takes 10 seconds. When there is produce ready to pick, I see it. Whenever a garden is out of sight, it is out of mind; whenever one has to "go garden," they don't. Grow your school garden as close as possible to where you and the school community pass by every day.
Beds & Paths

  • Paths, gates, etc. should be wide enough for a wheelbarrow to fit. If the paths will remain grass, be sure they are wide enough for your mower to fit. If you don't know how the grass is cut, ask facilities. (While you're at it, ask facilities if there is anything else you should know; any input they have. Their knowledge of school infrastructure, past events, how things get done, and the like is invaluable.)
  • Make sure the distinction between paths and beds is clear; this makes it easy for students & visitors to walk through the garden without worry and without killing things. You can do this, for example, by building raised beds or by clearly mulching pathways with wood chips.
  • If you're building a garden for middle or high schoolers, the maximum width of beds should be 4 feet. For preschool and elementary school gardens, the max should be 3 feet. Why? Because that's the maximum distance that hands can reach from the sides of the beds without having to step into the garden beds, thereby saving your soil from compaction. (Length does not matter.)
A few other things

  • Start small. Any small, successful school garden can get bigger. On the other hand, school gardens that start off too big very rarely shrink; they fail.
  • Enclosure. If there is a way to do so, design the garden so you can go "into" it. Think gates, arbors, or fruit trees, grape vines outlining the space, or simply beds to outline entrances and the perimeter. Somehow, create a sense of enclosure so that when children are "in" the garden, they know it and feel it.
  • Google SketchUp is a free design software. Watch a few SketchUp YouTube tutorials like I did, and you'll be able to create basic to-scale food garden designs within an hour or two.
At the risk of going on too long, I'll leave you with two of my own school garden designs that I like enough to replicate. Feel free to use them as templates or jumping off places to inspire your own school garden design efforts.

Seminole Montessori Preschool Garden Design (Tallahassee)
  • (4) 3'x3' raised beds with 3' pathways between all four beds in all directions
  • (2) trellises that inter-connect beds with arbor-isk arches. These serve as a structure for climbing crops like sugar snaps. They also provide a fun pass-through to give preschoolers the opportunity to "run through" the garden, especially once the crops cover the wire arches.
  • Garden is located in the playground field near-- but not in the way of-- other playground equipment and heavy traffic pathways.
  • When I was still in Tallahassee, I returned each season to work with the kids to top-dress the beds with fresh compost and to replant seasonal veggies. Week-in, week-out, the teachers helped preschoolers water, and they harvested veggies and incorporated them into their school snacks.
Normandy Village Elementary Outdoor Classroom Garden (Jacksonville)
We started our design effort at Normandy Village in the initial interest meeting comprising a couple teachers, the guidance councilor, principal, and a few students from their Leadership League. First, I asked "Why are you interested in a school garden?" Next I asked, "What do you imagine in or about the Normandy Village Elementary School Garden? What does your dream school garden look like? What ideas do you have?"  I gave everyone a piece of paper, and asked them to take a few minutes to write or draw their answers. Then we shared with one another. Here are two examples:
As you can see from these two examples, there are both physical design ideas (fruit trees, garden boxes, "lots of color") as well as program design ideas (parent involvement, vegetables of the month).

Before our next school garden team meeting, I took the many ideas generated by the school garden team and played with them in the context of the space the principal had selected. I took into account things like sunlight, water, existing features, where people walk, how to create a sense of enclosure, appropriate bed width, and the many other things above. Additionally, my wife, Mary Elizabeth, who teaches 8th grade, had-- the week before-- asked me to help her rearrange the desks in her classroom. As part of this, I measured her classroom length and width. It was 27x28 feet. As I was preparing the Normandy Village design, I thought, "Could I incorporate a classroom-sized open-space in which teachers could gather their classes in the midst of the garden?

Here is my rough draft sketch:
Notebook rough draft

I sent this picture to the principal. She & other members of the school garden team approved, so I committed it to Google SketchUp:
Design to-scale via Google Sketchup
Here is the day we built & planted-- everyone together. (Remember the parent involvement?  This is an example of enacted program design.)

And here it is the "Normandy Village Outdoor Garden Classroom" two months later, just waiting on the grape vines to grow up the trellis and the fruit trees to fill out the space behind where a teacher would stand at at the front.

- - - 

If you think a bit of support to launch -- or sustain-- your school garden would be helpful, give me a buzz. As I'm able (and you're in NE FL), I'm happy to participate in your school garden interest meeting or assess your space and offer my thoughts on your design. Should you want more committed assistance, let me know. It's what I do.

One parting piece of advice: if you're filling raised beds, make sure you start with the best compost-based mix available. If you're in the Jacksonville area, I sell my Magic Mix at cost to school and community gardens. If you're in Tallahassee, iGrow is your go-to. If you are somewhere else, make sure that several long-time area gardeners vouch for the mix you'll be using. You'll thank yourself when the kids "Oooo" and "Ahhh."

Happy Growing

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