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Turn an Empty School Lot Into a Veggie Garden

On a beautiful April morning, on the campus of an elementary school in the Silicon Valley, just after the school start time, while the whole school went from the hustle and buzz accompanying drop off into a total quietness, at this corner, however, happy chatters and bursts of laughs could be heard some distance away.  Getting closer, one could see it was a class of 4th grade kids going to start on a veggie garden. They were all very excited.  It was not their first time they did something related to a garden though – they did it before, kind of.

Start small

2 years ago, when California was still in the historic 5-year drought, in response to the call of conserving water, the school reduced the watering for its garden.   Like so many gardens across the area at that time, a big part of it went barren.  After the drought was over, though it was with a good reason, the garden could be improved. Finally a proposal was made, “Let’s do something!”  It happened that at the time the kids at 3rd grade were learning about water and water conservation as part of the curriculum.  Why not let the kids be involved in the garden?  After all, after the project was to be finished, they would see it the most; and, this would be great education for gardening, and water it would take. So the kids had a very different class on an afternoon, a discussion about the garden, and water.  What could we do about the garden?  What requirements must it meet?  Why is water so valuable?  To conserve water, what can we do?   Then came the fun part.  The kids were shown some of the plants, and they got to pick the ones they liked for the garden.  When they saw how the plants were like, they all got psyched up. “I like this one!”  “I like that one, I saw it on my hike!” “This one!” “No, that one!” “This one is like – I will just name it Medusa’s Hair!” After half hour of shouts, exchanges and laughter, the plants were decided on.  The list was sent to the principle, and the garden was planted. By next spring, the garden bloomed: Another year went by, by spring, the garden has completely been filled in.  It was lovely, all plants were blooming in the spring breeze. From time to time, parents and kids could be spotted pausing to take in the view before hurrying away into a busy day. The 3rd grade kids are now in their 4th grade, and they were assigned another research project for water conservation.   Another class discussion about water was held; at the end, everyone went out to take a look at the garden, something that they discussed and designed a year ago.  Once in in front of the garden, kids all got excited.  They asked about the names of the plants, remembering what they commented back then, shouted, laughing. When everyone was just looking and chatting, some kids and teacher saw this plot of empty land next by, and wondered: “Can we put some there too?  It will look nicer.” Definitely.  Actually, it can be a veggie garden!

Benefits of a school veggie garden

Kids can get so much out from building and growing a veggie garden. Improve understanding of science – The gardening process involves a lot of STEM knowledge.  To plan for a garden, the first step is to find out its size.  To that end, one needs to measure, and calculate – that is math right there.  For plants to grow well, it needs good combination of water, sun and soil.  That is botany.  What is in the soil?  How to make it fertile? Chemistry.  In a garden, these subjects are not just some dry concepts in the book, but something kids need to apply to tackle problems in the real world. Team work and communication – it is a team effort, from designing, planting to caring for the plants.  In the process, kids need to communicate, coordinate, do their own parts well, and come together to deliver a wonderful garden.  As the process usually takes several weeks to months, it provides ample opportunities for team-building. Connection to nature, and food  – nowadays a typical day for a kid is filled with books, homework and screen times of mobile phones and computers.  There has been less and less outdoor time.  When they are eating, very few would know how all the food are like when they were grown on a farm.  By growing their own veggies, kids get to see the nature up close, and see how the veggies are before they become their food.   That can be a rich and rewarding experience. Value the food, eat healthy  According to State of Obesity, “The latest data show that the national childhood obesity rate among 2- to 19-year-olds is 18.5 percent.” In other words, almost one in every 5 children are obese today.  That is an alarmingly high number.  While there are many ways to tackle the problem, one of the ways is to let  kids eat healthier, both quantitatively and qualitatively.  By growing their own veggie, kids will come to value their food much more, eat the healthy portion, and more likely to enjoy their  veggies.

Planting Day

Just like last time, kids played a big role in designing the garden and deciding on the veggies to plant.  Once the design was done, the project went underway.  Veggie beds were built, soil added, seedlings were purchased.  All was ready for the planting day! After some instructions were given to the kids, the planting started!  Spinach, chard, tomato, strawberry, basil… very soon all the seedlings were planted. A science teacher brought a box of the worms, kids just scooped them up and put in the soil.  They loved the worms! Then they helped put some plants in an empty area around the veggie beds, which were all drought tolerant, and would have blossom that attract bees and butterflies.  With these plants, the space will not only look more appealing, but also attract the pollinators that can help the veggies. All all the seedlings were planted, kids found the plant labels and put them next to each of the plant.  They wanted to learn about the plant names, and wanted the labels there for future reference. Finally all was done!  Everyone were very happy with the beautiful new garden.  All it takes now is the time for the veggies to grow, and some care and watering.  Now the kids can sit back a little, watch the veggies grow, and wait for the harvest time! Before Now (Below is added  5 weeks after planting)

First Harvest

In the weeks since planting, the veggies have all grown well, and grown up. Two weeks later: 5 weeks later: The end of school year was fast approaching.  A party would be held to celebrate.  Any idea for food at the party? Harvest time! While the tomatoes have not come yet, the lettuce ad chard were big enough for harvest.  After they tasted it, kids said: “Yum!” When they were asked to write down the best memories from the last school year, all kids wrote about the garden.  One kid said, ” “It was nice to see our work come to fruition”  Another: “I love seeing the garden every day as I walk and leave school”.  And this one: “”I am so proud of making our school beautiful and leaving a part of me here, forever”.  Veggie garden not only gave kids some salad, but an experience that they cherish and love.      

Great Makeover Story: From Barren to Beauty (1)

This story is about an amazing transformation from barren to beauty. When the owners moved into the house, the first thing they wanted to change was the front and back yards.  It was barren, utterly unattractive.  The main part of the front yard was this hard surface covered with sand.  It had been used as a parking space for years.  The backyard had the similar hard sandy surface as the path, with a big bush of catti plants in the middle.  When it was windy, the sands from the surfaces would be blown up and hit everything around: people, dogs, kids.  It could be messy. Barren old front yard Old Back Yard The owner wanted beautiful landscapes for their yards; meanwhile, they also wanted something that is environmentally friendly, that would not use a lot of water.  To be “good” to the environment was important for them.  They wanted to be efficient for all natural resources, keeping the footprint on environment as small as possible.

Addressing the challenges of building a garden

When one looked at the front yard, the challenges for building a garden was obvious.  A big lot.  Hard surface. No top soil.  And, on a slope.  For plants to grow well, at the minimum, they would need water and soil.  How would these be addressed? Capture and reuse rain Water When one checked on the site, they would see two downspouts, one on each side of the house, come right down to the lot.   They pointed to hard surface, which would just let the rainwater runoff.   That is quite a waste.   Rainwater is an excellent resource of water, which can be used to water plants.   To capture and reuse rain water, one can use a rain barrel, or build a rain garden.  As the the front yard is on a slope where rain water would flow down naturally, a rain garden built close to the bottom of the slope could capture the rain water and reuse it well.

Downspout 1
Downspout 1
Downspout 2
Downspout 2

When it doesn’t rain, plants still need water to establish and grow.  For irrigation of a water efficient garden, drip irrigation is the way to go.  It can point to the root area for each plant precisely, so water can get to where it is needed exactly, without mass runoff.  Compared with a sprinkler system, drip can save water by 30-60%. Select hardy and drought tolerant plants As the soil under the surface is very hard from years of being used as a parking lot, it was not the best soil for many plants.  Ideally, the soil could be improved with materials such as compost and organic matters over a longer period of time; however, the option was not  available due to the time limit of the project.  This made the selection of plants especially important. Many native  and other plants are adapted to California’s soil system and can thrive in all kinds of soils.  They can be hardy for tough environments, and need little water once established.  They also have other benefits.  A lot of them produce blossom that are good food for pollinators like bees, butterflies and birds, supporting a vibrant Eco system. California Native Plant Repurpose of the existing plants For the design of the back yard, it was decided that the bush of cactus plants would go; the space would be emptied for other uses.  The catti plants thrived well in the micro system around the house, making them a a good bet for the soil conditions in the front yard.  Instead of discarding them, the catti would be reused for front yard. Catti Bush

Building the garden

After the design of the garden was finished, the project entered installment. Installing a rain garden There are several parts to this.  First, proper discharge of rain water from the down spout.  Instead of letting the rainwater just go down to the ground and run off, the water would be drained into the garden.  Ditches were dug, pipes were connected.   Two  channels were also dug from the end of the pipes to the rain garden.  When it rains, rain water would be discharged out of the pipes, into the channel, then flow into the rain garden. Pipe 1 Pipe 2 Stream 1 Stream 2 Then an area was dug for the rain garden.   The shape of the rain garden usually is round or curvy, to reduce the force of runoff and effect of erosion. After that, plants were put into the rain garden.  There are some special requirements for such plants.  Specifically, they should be able to stand both wet and dry conditions well.  Better yet, they can add color and texture to the garden, making the garden look even more attractive. Lastly, the whole area of the channels and rain garden were filled with pebble stones.  Once the stones were added, two “streams” and a “pond” came into life.  When it rains, all the roof’s rain water would flow into the stream,  out to the pond, seep through the pebbles, water the plants, then percolate deep down and recharge ground water, an act badly needed for our environment. Rain Garden 1 Rain Garden 2 In big cities where surfaces like concrete is prevalent, only 5% of rain water can infiltrate deep into the soil, depriving groundwater the opportunity of being recharged.  Areas like rain garden can change that and let as much as 25% of rain water go deep under.  Recharging groundwater  is very important for keeping a healthy water system and providing backup when drought hits. Impervious Cover A lovely catti Area Catti plants are favorites for many people!  They come in all kinds of shapes, colors and forms, some of them sporting splendid and beautiful flowers.  They are very drought tolerant, needing only very little water once they are established.  Catti plants can fill out a full garden, or can be integrated as part of a bigger garden, just like what was being done here.  Here they fill out the long stripe along the driveway, offering something wonderful to see and enjoy when one comes home. Catti Plant 1 Catti Plant 2 A magnet for bees  and birds Plants with splendid blossom provide the food that bees, birds and other pollinators depend on.  As bees’ population has been on a decline,  it is even more important that we provide places where these small creatures can feed on and take a good break.  Compared with a lawn which does not provide any food or shelter, gardens with drought tolerant and native plants can become a paradise for bees and birds. Here, this plant was planted in a row along the pathway.  When it blooms, it has this bright beautiful blossom that is hard to miss.  It is not just us who love them,  bees and birds crave them too! Plant for Bee Bee Parking Strip not to be ignored Compared with the main garden, quite often, parking strips are “after thoughts” since they are a bit small.  However, in quite some cases they still have sizable spaces, and are an important part of the front space.  They can also be filled with the drought tolerant plants and native plants, adding to the curb appeal, and food for bees and birds. Parking Strip 1 Adding Mulch After the garden is finished, an important step is to cover the whole surface with mulch.  There are several benefits of this.  First, they can significantly slow down water evaporation, keep soil moist longer so reduce water required for the plants.  They can also suppress the growth of weeds, further reducing water usage.  Third, organic mulch like this made from bark can disintegrate into the soil over time, adding to the organic matters in the soil, improving soil quality and water retention capability.  Aesthetically, they provide this backdrop for all the foliage and blossom, making the space look even more appealing. A brand new garden Tieing all the elements together…the new garden was born!  The space has dramatically changed.  Here was how it was like: Old Yard And the new garden:

A rain garden doing well in rain

Shortly after the garden was finished, several storms hit the area.  How did the garden do in the rain? All came out to be good!  Water flew into the stream and pond as designed; plants enjoyed the rain and grew well. Off the garden, water that came down from impervious surfaces like driveway pooled into runoff, which would flow out to a sewer and empty into the streams and rivers.  There were lots of pollutants in the runoff which would hurt the animals living in the waters, and pollute the broader water system.  That is why we should limit the areas with impervious cover and try to build more rain gardens, like the one shown here. With a design of native and drought tolerant plants, the front space of this residence has been completely transformed.  Not only has it gone from utterly unattractive to beautiful, but also become  a wonderful place for bees, birds and butterflies.   As the plants are drought tolerant, only a little water will be needed after the plants are established.  Low water use, beautiful, great for the bees – water efficient gardens can add so much charm for your space!

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