This is the season for school vegie gardens, places where kids can discover the wonders of picking and eating, see a dead-looking stick become a tree, the tiniest seed turning into lettuce and the extraordinary generosity of the earth.
It is also the time when vegie gardens die from heat, thirst or become infected with fruit fly or devoured by possums or grasshoppers.
School terms, however, can't be adjusted to fit in with growing seasons. The trick is to choose fruit and veg that will survive, thrive and crop before the next school holidays or survive the school break and that kids love. Which rules out radishes, except in an emergency or as a garnish.
Try little butternut lettuce or red mignonette, sweet and fast growing – the kids will be eating them in six to 10 weeks after planting (try a salad dressing of 3 tbsp olive oil, 1 tbsp lemon juice and a touch of honey). Water daily, mulch and feed well. Lettuce grows fast, so kids really see a result and taste it too.
Try the larger, sweeter ones like Tom Thumb or yellow pear tomatoes – some cherry tomatoes can be slightly bitter if grown in cooler climates. The larger cherry and grape tomatoes have a better proportion of juicy insides to skin as well. In frost prone areas try planting them in big pots that can be lugged inside at the end of the school day – they'll keep cropping well into winter if planted now. Young tomato plants are more vigorous than older ones and will crop for longer in cool weather. Siberian tomatoes are also excellent for late planting, if you can find the seeds.
Ask kids to bring a pair of old joggers, preferably with a hole or two in them. If not, add. Fill with potting mix, then add well-grown strawberry plants. See if you can find ones already blooming. Feed weakly and weekly, and hopefully you'll have berries all autumn and even through winter in warmer areas. The bushes will throw out runners each year, perfect for kids to share with their friends or next year's students.
These grow in dappled shade and even survive dry shade though for best fruiting they require water and feeding. Wait till each lantern becomes brown and semi-transparent. This means the green berry inside has turned rich orange … okay, they are not exactly delicious. Edible. And great fun to unwrap.
These are for areas that get only light frost, or none, which can mean an above ground garden on a school roof or concrete terrace, which will be hotter and sunnier than "real" gardens nearby. Sweet potatoes are the most ridiculously generous plants and, if heaped with deep mulch over winter, will survive a mild frosty winter and over the years produce vast quantities of tubers. Treat them like a permanent pantry, picking every few days until the cool weather arrives. Bury the bed in deep straw mulch. It will gradually breaks down over winter, then magically, come spring, foliage returns and harvesting can begin again.
Let these twine along the fences or railings. The fruit don't mature till winter i.e no fruit fly. Birds love them, but a horde of kids racing around several times a day is better than a scarecrow. You need a male and a female for pollination and, sadly, patience, as it will be two or thee years before you get a crop. Young plants also need regular watering but once the vines are well established they are almost unkillable.
A dwarf apple fence
Plant them two metres apart; prune them into a fence shape and let the side branches twine with each other. Choose either the varieties best suited to your climate – Cox's Orange Pippin, for example, really does taste best with cooler summers as well as cold winters – or one that begins to ripen in mid-February as many varieties do, or choose Democrats or Lady Williams that mature in winter and are thus too late for fruit fly. Every kid should have the chance to pick at least one ripe apple every year, and eat it straight from the tree.
Okay, I am not a radish eater, but the round ones grow fast and easily and can be picked a month from sowing and are bright red, which kids like.
Ronde de Nice carrots
My favourite carrots – ridiculously round, extremely sweet and totally lovable. Grow lots and eat them raw after a wash under the tap.
For some reason snow peas are irresistible on the vine and very resistible cooked and on the plate. Grow the climbing ones up fences or trellises and let kids forage for them whenever they want to. Grow lots – you'll need to.
There are of course hundreds of other veg and fruits that can be grown, like water melons that are planted in spring and ripen just as the holidays end, a sort of welcome-back-to-school present. But more complex gardens rely on adult volunteers to care for them, weed, feed and water. It is sad to see a flourishing garden wither when the sole volunteer who cared for it moves away.
A school garden needs to have a community behind it, with adult gardeners to keep it going, plan and teach. But the rewards are far more than few hundred lettuces or strawberries. You only need to watch a child's face as they find a treasure of strawberries in their joggers to know how deeply humans need a green and growing world to be most deeply happy.
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