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How to Start a Kids' Garden

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Feel free to use the ideas on this website with your club, and please email photos and captions or stories for the Kids Blog any time you'd like! Just include the name of your club and your city and state, and we'll post it so that we can learn from each other, and enjoy gardening together.

Here are some key pointers to help you plan your club:

1.    Zero in on your purpose.

Do you want to get kids gardening just for fun and exercise? Do you want to use the garden as a way to teach math, reading, writing, science, history, team-building and other topics for out-of-school, informal learning? Do you want to use the garden to train the kids in cooking, business or career exploration? Will they take home all the produce, or do you plan to sell it? Where will you sell it? Or do you plan to give some or all away? If so, to whom?

It helps you promote the garden idea to children and youth, their parents, potential donors, and your community, if you have a clear purpose in mind before you ever break ground. Then you can budget more readily, too.

2.    Pick a place to plant: public property vs. private property?

There should be a community garden support group in your community by now; run it through a search engine and ask around, perhaps at your county or university extension office, because these veterans would be your No. 1 best advisors for the all-important step of selecting a place for your kids' garden.

The easiest is to plant the garden on your own land and cover any unmet expenses. You can control and secure the tools, water supply, and who comes in and what goes out, the most easily. But you do have to put up with the hassle of allowing people onto your property for this purpose. However, this may be the most relaxed and most fun way to go.

Second-best is on unused, privately-owned land, such as a vacant lot owned by a neighbor, a nonprofit organization, or your neighborhood association. If no one locally knows who owns the land, your county tax assessor's office can tell you. Oftentimes, you can run hoses from a neighboring house under an agreement to reimburse that neighbor for water costs; that can be a great way to supplement rain barrels while still ensuring a steady water supply. If you hope to use private land, take the extremely important first step of finding out who the property owner is, setting up a meeting, talking over your plans, negotiating a deal (free? monthly rent? free, with a box per week of veggies and/or flowers for the landlord?). Prepare an agreement in writing. Try to get as much of a time commitment as you can, but be understanding: if the ground is for sale, you might be out before you even get a start. So be aware.

Another idea is to find public land, perhaps in a park or out-of-the-way space, which is owned by the taxpayers. Your City Council representative or state legislator can help you here, perhaps greasing the way for a deal to let you use it free. Work with municipal authorities to develop your community garden within their rules and regulations; there might be permits for growing and selling produce either on- or off-site. They might even help you rig up a meter to get your water from a nearby fireplug, if you're really, really lucky.

The last choice, because it is usually a bit of a hassle, is to start your kids' garden on school property. Quite often, school officials are worried that gung-ho volunteers will disappear when their children move on to the next school, leaving them with no volunteers and several holes in the ground; this may be a very valid concern. Schools also are concerned about the maintenance hassles, mess, conflicts with janitors, liability, and many more questions. If you are lucky, a school-based garden can be a huge convenience for all concerned . . . but it's not always the most feasible of your options.

3.    Work up a budget.

Do you have to buy untreated lumber for raised beds, or can you get them donated? Soil and compost? Seeds and plants? Pots, containers, canning jars? The water bill? Tomato cages? Garden hose? Rain barrel? Extra ingredients for cooking that you plan to do? Can you borrow kid-sized garden tools, watering cans, buckets, and other tools of the trade?

Can your youth gardeners each contribute some kind of a tool, or can you locate people willing to give them to you? Try eBay or www.craigslist.com

Gardening is just about as expensive or as cheap as you can make it to be. It's best to count up the costs FIRST, and then figure out how to meet them.

4.    If you don't have water, you don't have a garden!

You really, really don't want to run water pipes to your garden. That can cost thousands of dollars. Talk about defeating the purpose!

If a water supply isn't readily available, improvise. Try making a deal with a neighbor and bring a long garden hose . . . or devise several rain barrels . . . or, last choice but still doable, arrange with your club members to take turns hauling water in. After the first few weeks, when your seeds and starts are established, water doesn't become quite as critical, but your dreams of a beautiful garden can . . . well . . . DRY UP if you haven't solved this crucial problem first.

5.    Identify your support group.

Experienced gardeners might be able to pull off a kids' garden club without any help. But most of us need a support network so that the club doesn't become overwhelming.

Can parents afford a one-time membership fee of, say, $25 in exchange for materials and instruction for one weekly garden lesson for eight weeks?

Can you find a company or individual to sponsor your garden club with one check? Or maybe two or three companies who'll split the sponsorship in exchange for putting their sign or logo on your garden?

Would your school let you have some land?

Would your neighborhood association lend you land, money or pay for a sign?

How about an adult Sunday School group or Bible study to "adopt" your group?

If your child is already in a Scouting or 4-H group, could the group meet over the summer and focus on gardening?

Can you get some parents and other adult volunteers to come and help the kids plan the garden, and then help again on Planting Day in the spring?

Do you have one or more experienced gardeners who will come and help from time to time, and "mentor" you along with teaching the kids?

Is there someone who could help you gather recipes and organize a cooking or canning party and donate the jars, share kettles, etc.?

Do you have a list of potential donors from your church or business associations, to whom you can write fund-raising letters asking for help?

Have you tried some of the government agencies and nonprofits listed in the "Garden Links" page on this website?

See? There are more people around who can help you, than you might have thought. The more "spade work" you do before you recruit young gardeners, the easy it will be on you in the long run.

6.    Low start-up costs are best. Baby steps!

Set up your garden on land for which you don't have to pay rent. Someone's backyard, a schoolyard, a social service agency's land, or even an empty lot all can make fine locations. Just check with the property owner before you do anything else.

Although the cheapest way is to create wide, raised beds of soil with no physical framework, you might want to construct wooden frames. See if you can get someone to donate untreated boards to make raised beds, and help the kids screw them into boxes.

See if you can get someone else to donate black garden soil, compost, mulch, kid-sized tools and, of course, seeds and plants.

Keep it cheap, and you'll worry less and enjoy more!

7.    Funding through mini-grant sources and After School Treats, Inc.

If you still don't have enough money to operate your club the way you'd like to, there are mini-grants available. Everybody loves kids and gardening! Ask at your local county extension office or university . . . county or city government, including health/nutrition department . . . garden stores and nurseries . . . or any kind of corporate or individual sponsors or donors that you can line up.

For the Omaha metropolitan area, there is a limited amount of start-up funding available through the parent website of www.KidsGardenClub, which is www.AfterSchoolTreats.com. There is a nonprofit organization which has 501(c)(3) tax status. After School Treats, Inc., collects donations from all kinds of sources and issues mini-grants as funds become available.

Perhaps someone in your network of contacts wants to help, but wants a tax deduction, too. Anyone can give a donation to After School Treats, Inc., through this website, and 100% of it will be passed on to your group for your gardening project.

The donor will receive a tax deduction, because After School Treats, Inc., is a 501(c)(3) corporation. Contact Susan@KidsGardenClub.org for more information.

8.    Check the sun's path and patterns, and the lay of the land.

The No. 1 factor for a good garden location is that it has at least six to eight continuous hours of full sun per day. Shady spots won't give the plants enough sun-energy to grow well. However, garden locations that get shade in the early morning or late afternoon are fine.

It's probably best to grow on a flat surface, but you can make a raised bed on a gentle slope, level it on one side so that the soil lays flat, and it'll be OK.

Another key factor: easy access to a water supply.

Also to consider: secure storage for tools and supplies.

If the land was formerly a garden or a farm, has been "under grass" and organically raised (no manmade chemicals) for a while, and especially if livestock used to graze there, rejoice! You probably have fairly good soil to start. But don't worry if your soil isn't too great: we gardeners have ways of dealing with that!

9.    Check your soil.

This is a great first lesson for youth gardeners. Soil is all-important; they should become experts at analyzing soils as a lifelong skill.

You can purchase a pH soil test kit from any garden supply store. That will guide you as to what soil amendments you should make.

Quite often, you will need to add compost or rotted manure to increase the fertility. Sometimes, you may need to add sand, bone meal, fireplace ashes and any number of other acid-increasing substances.

If you are in an inner city, it's best to have lead and arsenic soil tests done by the Environmental Protection Agency before you break ground to grow any kind of food crop, to make sure there's no lead or other contaminants in the soil. If there is, find another spot, or you'll have to remove the top one foot of soil and re-test. It's not fun. Also not fun is that sometimes, the wait for this test can be longer than the growing season. So please try to plan ahead, if this is a concern.

10. Water.

You also need a water supply very close to the garden. Rain barrels are a great idea to save money, and they are fun for the kids to paint and decorate. You might be able to find a Scout willing to build you screened tops for your rain barrels, which will stay on in high winds, but keep bugs and debris out of your water.

For larger gardens, you can set up an inexpensive bucket-drip irrigation system, a hose that you can tuck out of sight when you're not there, or put the kids into a "bucket brigade" for watering plants just around their bases.

If you water the whole garden area, you'll get too many weeds. So it's probably best not to set up an elaborate sprinkling system. Try to water each plant right around the roots.

If you are borrowing water, be sure to make arrangements to reimburse the owner of the water meter from which you'll be using water!

Remember the power of mulch to conserve water and keep weeds away, and practice good techniques, such as watering in the early morning to avoid evaporation.

11. Mentor.

Ask around the neighborhood to find an experienced gardener who would be willing to come and help on a regular basis. Kids need mentors, and sometimes, youth group leaders need mentors, too!

If you have a gardening mentor - someone to bounce ideas off, and tell you what TO do and what NOT to do, then you can lead a kids' garden without being an experienced gardener yourself.

This is an absolutely beautiful opportunity to get an elderly person who's a veteran gardener involved with your kids' group. It's a great way to enjoy the intergenerational friendship and transfer of wisdom that is so important for both age groups.

12. Time management.

Before you start garden planning, decide how much time you are going to put into the garden. Don't over-plant!

A workable plan is to devote a LOT of time during the busy week or so at planting time in the spring, and then two hours a week - preferably on two or three different days - during the growing season, to pull weeds, deal with pests and so forth.

Then plan on devoting a little more time at harvest time to learn about cooking, canning, drying and storing your garden bounty!

But make sure the time commitment is clear up front before you start recruiting kid gardeners.

One idea is a full weekend right after Mother's Day for planting, and then set up the kids to take turns with garden-care chores on Tuesdays and Thursdays, with the full group gathering on Saturday mornings for 60 or 90 minutes.

13. Let the kids select the plants.

It's probably a good idea to choose low-maintenance plants that are relatively pest-resistant and not as labor-intensive. But there's a tradeoff: some of the plants that kids love most to grow are more labor-intensive, especially if you want to grow organically.

For example, if you grow pumpkins, you need to be in that garden several times a week, hand-smashing the squash bugs that can decimate your crop. If that's worth it to you, then go ahead and plan a pumpkin patch!

But if gardening is intimidating, plan "no-brainer" crops that, with a little extra effort in the beginning, pretty much grow themselves, like most varieties of tomatoes, and many prairie flowers and perennials.

Avoid selecting "boutique" vegetables that kids don't like to eat or aren't unfamiliar with - unless your purpose is to get them hooked on those fun, gourmet vegetables!

And be aware that many of their favorite food crops, including celery, can be difficult for the home gardener to grow successfully. A little garden wisdom is advised: it could be that a drastic "failure" could be a great lesson, too.

14. Vandalism and theft.

Unfortunately, vandalism does occur if a community garden is located away from where vandals might be caught. So expect it, especially if you have attractive features in your garden, including nice tomato cages and cucumber trellises, cute scarecrows, garden ornaments and the like.

But you may be able to prevent problems like this if you make friends with your garden's neighbors, give them veggies and flowers from time to time, and ask them to keep an eye out and call you if anyone does anything.

It's also wise to try to figure out in advance who might be inclined to come in and smash your pumpkins or steal your picnic table, etc., and win them over by inviting them to join the group, or putting them in charge of garden security BEFORE anything happens.

15. Neighborhood improvement.

Garden extras that you could seek to have donated, or earn money toward as a group, include having a picnic table for outdoor learning or refreshments, a drinking fountain, a bike rack, a sandbox for brothers and sisters, a sign with the name of your club, a phone number to contact in case of a problem, and some basic garden rules and announcements, a 3' x 3' x 3' compost pile, and a trash bin or someplace to keep your garden area neat.

It might be wise to cement down and chain in place some items if you can, but be philosophical: theft and vandalism might still occur, but please don't let the threat of those problems deter you from making your garden really wonderful.

It's always a good idea to contact your local Scout group and see if any prospective Eagle Scouts or others might be available to help you with your "permaculture," or garden building, needs. A lockable garden storage shed, for example, would be a huge benefit.

16. In case of injury.

Because "things happen," you might want to think about having the parents of the youth in your group to sign a permission slip with a "hold harmless" waiver.

That way, if any of the children or teens gets hurt while gardening, it will not be your responsibility to pay medical bills.

But make it clear on the form that you will be teaching garden safety before the kids even get started, and then again every session! And then do so. "Grow" a little common sense in your youth gardeners, and parents and kids alike will appreciate it.

17. Liability insurance for the property owner.

Check with the property owner - whether you're operating the kids' garden on your property, or the neighborhood association's, or the school's - to make sure that you and the gardeners would be covered in the event of a catastrophe.

For example, you could run over a child in your driveway or get into a car crash during a mini-field trip. You have to answer the "what if?" questions BEFORE anything bad happens, and then, most likely, nothing WILL. But it's better to be safe than sorry.

If the property owner thinks it's a good idea, you might want to purchase liability insurance for the property owner in the event of a catastrophe. It shouldn't be too expensive as a rider on the existing insurance policy.

Last, but not least, your garden start-up efforts should include a Garden Notebook. Buy a 3" 3-ring binder. It should contain:

n  Name, parents' names, address, phone number and email address of each student, and a checkbox for whether they've paid dues, if you're charging dues

n  Budget

n  A plastic pocket for receipts

n  Schedule of activities and lessons, using www.KidsGardenClub.org and other sources

n  List of possible field trips

n  Names and phone numbers of mentors, potential guest speakers, supporters, donors, etc.

n  Results of soil tests, with dates and how you amended the soil

n  A plastic pocket to keep seed packets

n  Garden plan on grid paper

n  Sowing calendar if you're starting seeds indoors

n  Harvesting calendar

n  Permission slips

n  Insurance documents

n  Evaluation sheets to give to each student at the end of the growing season

n  Blank paper for all the notes you're going to take of what you want to do differently next year!

By Susan Darst Williams www.KidsGardenClub.org Planning 02 2010

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