One of the most important aspects of ensuring that a schoolyard habitat will be successful is to “build-in” a plan for ongoing maintenance. During the school year, if the habitat was designed with curriculum connections in mind and with the intention of conducting outdoor lessons on a regular basis, then maintenance will have been incorporated directly into the lesson plans. For example, weeding and watering are two of the most basic maintenance needs. In order to determine whether or not a plant is a weed, you need to be able to identify plants. Identifying plants requires understanding classification, leaf arrangement and other characteristics. Fortunately, each of these is a skill that students need to learn to meet various science (and other) state standards; lesson plans that include plant i.d. can therefore be used to conduct weeding exercises at the same time. Similarly, the task of watering plants can be incorporated into lessons that teach water volume, measuring, soil percolation, and other related topics.
Preparing for summer, however, will involve a different strategy, and every school approaches this challenge differently, depending on the resources they have available. Schools that have established a strong core of support usually fare best. These are schools which have a team or committee of highly involved and motivated members, who can be counted on to follow-through on various tasks. Members usually include a mix of teachers, parents and community volunteers, such as Master Gardeners or Master Naturalists.
At some schools, the team will send out sign-up sheets to parents during the last couple of months before the school year ends, so that a different parent or family will “adopt” the schoolyard maintenance each week during the summer. Trained volunteers are also asked to sign-up for a slot, so that a volunteer will be able to coach or mentor the parents and their children as they do the various maintenance activities needed. The key aspect here is the training, i.e. the volunteers are either gardeners themselves and know how to do maintenance, or the committee has conducted a training before summer, to prepare volunteers for the anticipated work.
In other cases, for those schools which will have a summer day camp based at their facility, it’s possible to coordinate maintenance activities with the day camp director. Ideally, day camp lesson plans will use the outdoor classroom to its best advantage, and they can therefore keep an eye on the weeds and watering during the summer session as they enjoy activities in the garden.
Collaborating with scout leaders and 4-H groups can also be very helpful. Many of these groups welcome gardening-based activities, and a schoolyard habitat could be the place to meet during the summer and participate in maintenance activities.
One should keep in mind that we’re talking about “general” garden maintenance, not heavy work like earth-moving or complicated repairs to arbors and fences. These tasks require more “one-on-one” volunteer work: identify the parent or volunteer in the school community who owns the necessary equipment or has the required skill, and call on them to do a specific task.
As always, be sure to plan awards for those volunteers who step forward, and recognize them during “back-to-school” night in the fall, to keep the momentum going.