Category Archives: Instructional Activities

Week 4 – Seed Packets, What to Plant

We have amended our beds, laid out rows and are now ready to sow seeds. All pertinent information about planting seeds can be found on the back of the seed packet. This includes: lighting requirements, row spacing, plant spacing, planting depth, plant height, days to germination, and days to harvest.

Note: On the seed packet row spacing refers to traditional row crops. In a raised bed we don’t need space to walk through our rows, so we plant more intensively (closer together).

Also, pay special attention to plant height, remember taller plant go at the north end and smaller plants at the southern end, this way your plant are not shading one another.

If still undecided about what you’re growing please consider the following:
1) Radishes – Perhaps not the tastiest of vegetables but certainly the quickest; seed to harvest is 30 days. Students will feel a sense of accomplishment that far outweighs any nutritional or educational benefit.
2) Lettuce – One of the easiest vegetables one can grow. Stagger your planting (sow seeds Oct, Nov, Dec…) and you’ll have lettuce all year. Also, more importantly, lettuce seed sown now will go to seed within the school year. If you wish to demonstrate the life cycle of a plant, lettuce is perfect (so is Cilantro).
3) Peas and Carrots – Good companion plants in the garden, and in the kitchen. Peas are like nature’s candy and carrots are a thrill to harvest.
4) Fava Beans – Dual benefits, first, they grow well in the fall and can be used in many bean recipes and second, fava bean plants add nitrogen to the soil benefiting the crops that follow it.
5) Swiss Chard – Winner of the most-bang-for-your-buck award. Sow seeds in the fall, harvest only the outer leaves, and you can enjoy Swiss chard the entire year.
6) Anything in the Brassica family – This includes, broccoli, cabbage, kale, etc., which are rich in phytonutrients. For more about phytonutrients, read the following from the USDA

For complete list of what you can plant now see my chart of Vegetable Families and the Digital Gardener’s Southern California Vegetable Planting Schedule.

Week 3 – Amending Beds, Laying Out Rows

Why do we need to amend the beds, why do we need to turn the soil?” I hear this alot. Invariably its from a student in the midst of said activity who deservedly wants a break. The answer is, we amend the beds to add nutrients to the soil. Healthy soil means healthy plants. There is an old addage that states feed the soil, not the plant.

We turn the soil to mix the amendments with our existing soil and to aerate it as well. Aerating the soil is crucial for root development. Stick your pointer finger into an aerated bed and observe how easily it penetrates the surface. Now try to stick that same finger into the hard ground between the beds and notice how difficult it is to penetrate, if you can even do it at all. Now imagine that your finger is the root of a plant. In what environment do you think it will grow best. Correct, the aerated bed.

Note: Once a bed is turned it should never be walked on. Walking on the beds compacts the soil.

Once the beds are amended the next step is laying out rows. We lay out rows to plot where our seeds will be sown. Simply tie string to two row ends where you want your seeds to be planted. Row ends can be: splintered pieces from an old wooden box, plastic spoons, or, my favorite, tongue depressors from the nurses office.

Space your rows according to what plant you are growing. Read the back of the seed packet for this info.

Video – How to Amend a Raised Bed

Week 2 – Soil Amendments

Setting up a classroom, learning all new names and faces, last week was way too short to even think about gardening. No worries, we’ll get to it this week without missing a beat.

First off, review Week 1 (see below), especially the part about tool safety, then read on…

For those new to gardening you should have your location scoped out and permission from the principal granted. Focus next on obtaining raised beds or containers. offers a 3 ft square raised bed made of black plastic now on sale for $35.00 (that’s about as low of a price as I’ve seen anywhere.) See it here

For those with existing raised beds now would be a good time to clear the beds, add your amendments and begin turning the soil. Physically this will be our hardest job all year. It would be a good idea if everyone took turns to lessen the burden.

More about amendments…
Definition of Soil Amendment – Material that is added to the soil for the purpose of improving the physical and biological characteristics of the soil including improving the tilth, porosity, aeration, aggregation, water holding potential, or to increase the organic content, ion exchange capacity and microbial viability. Washington State Department of Ecology

Choosing a soil amendment

Where Can You Get Cheap Natural Fertilizers and Soil Amendments?

Week 1 – Planning, Clearing, Tool Safety, Compost

For those new to school gardens now is the time to find a proper location. You’ll want a spot that is level, with at least six hours of sun exposure, and good drainage. If the desired location is facing south, all the better. Make sure there is a usable water source nearby. If no ground is available containers will do nicely, the bigger the better.

For those with existing gardens, begin clearing your beds pulling all dried matter and weeds leaving nothing but dirt. However, before you get started, look around and see what is left from the summer. Dried corn tassels make a wonderful fall arrangement. Dried pole beans left on the vine can be collected for next season. Dried flower heads such as sunflowers, cosmos and marigolds can also be saved for seed.

If you are already equipped for composting add the cleared matter to your compost pile. If not acquainted with composting now would be a good time to introduce yourself. Compost is nature’s way of recycling itself. Plants that have expired are put into a pile with other organic matter. By keeping the pile wet and aerated the pile decomposes forming compost, which is then added back to our existing beds to enrich the soil.

For more information see Composting page at Wikipedia , the Compost Guide from, and the “Guide to Home Composting” from the Los Angeles Department of Public Works in either English or Spanish.

Tools and Tool Safety are always addressed at the outset. Both are essential to a successful garden. Basic rules are as follows: 1) No running with tools; 2) Do not carry or swing tools on your back; 3) Do not bring hands tools over your shoulder; 4) Walk with the tool by your side, blade down; 5) Return all tools to their proper place immediately after use. Do not leave tools in the garden; 6) Anyone not following these rules does not get to work in the garden.

Essential tools are: Garden Fork for turning soil and compost, Shovel for transplanting, Dirt Rake for leveling the soil, removing root clumps and large pebbles, Garden Hoe for removing weeds, Hand-shovels (also called trowels) for digging small holes, Hand-cultivators for weeding and aerating soil, and Pruners for cutting large stems. Miscellaneous tools include: scissors, string, gloves, rulers, tape measure, row ends and plastic bags to distribute the bounty.

What to Grow and When to Grow It

In Southern California we have two major planting times, fall and spring. In fall we plant cool weather crops in spring warm weather crops. To know which are which review this chart of Vegetable Families

WeHo Winter Garden
West Hollywood Elementary School Winter Garden

How to Start and Maintain a School Garden

Venice High School Learning Garden

Venice High School Learning Garden

How to get started
1) First and foremost get permission from the principal.
2) Get help. Talk about your proposal at the next parent/teacher conference. Contact your local Master Gardener office for volunteers in your area. In Los Angeles, the Master Gardener Email Gardening Helpline can be reached at
3) Placement of garden – Minimum 6 hours sunlight and good drainage (if sunlight is questionable grow veggies that don’t fruit: lettuce, spinach, swiss chard, etc.)
4) What’s your water source? Is everything working? Do you need a hose and nozzle? How often will you water and who will do it? If using in-ground watering system, how long and how often?
5) Consult with maintenance, they control the water. Introduce yourself if unfamiliar.
6) Secure Place for Tools – Essential tools are: Garden Fork for turning soil and compost, Shovel for transplanting, Dirt Rake for leveling the soil in beds, removing root clumps and large pebbles, Garden Hoe for removing weeds, Hand-shovels (also called trowels) for digging small holes, Hand-cultivators for weeding and aerating soil, Pruners for cutting large stems, also Poles, Cages, and Trellises (tomatoes, peas, cucumbers, pole beans all need support to grow). Misc. – scissors, string, gloves, rulers, tape measure, row ends and plastic baggies to distribute the bounty.

Preparing the space
1) Containers, raised beds, or planting in-ground
If containers they should be washed, cleansed and filled with container soil. Cleanse old containers with a solution of 1 part bleach to 9 parts water. If raised beds, no wider than 4 feet. Students need complete access from both sides.
2) With raised beds and/or planting in-ground first we clear the beds, then add amendments, then turn the soil, thoroughly aerating it as we go. Amendments (like organic compost) are nutrients we add to the existing soil. No walking on the beds after they have been turned and raked as this compresses the soil making it hard for young roots to pentrate. Amending the beds is physically our hardest job.

Planting the Garden
1) Seeds or Transplants – Sow seeds directly in the ground in September as the ground is still warm from the summer and germination will be easy. After the winter break start seeds in containers indoors and transplant when ready, approximately 3-4 weeks. Germination becomes difficult in the winter as nighttime temperatures fall below 50 degrees. Seed germination is best at temperatures from 60-80.
2) What to grow and when to grow it – We have two seasons in a school garden: before the winter break, and after the winter break. Before the winter break we plant cool season vegetables like broccoli and peas, after the winter break we begin our warm season vegetables like zucchini and tomatoes indoors and then transplant.
3) Lay out rows – We make rows to identify where our seeds are planted. Read seed packets for spacing. If given the choice lay out rows perpendicular to the arc of the sun.
4) Planting Day – Make it an event. When planting from seed, depth is important. General rule: depth is twice the width of the seed. See seed packet for individual instructions. Make a trench under the string, scatter seed, stress that each seed is a plant and needs room to grow, space the seeds carefully. Cover the trench, pat it down, and water. Very Important – Bed must never dry out during the germination process. In the beginning you will need to water nearly every day.

1) Thinning – Put two students back to back and ask if they would like to live their entire lives like that. Plants need room to grow as well. No two plants can occupy the same space. Carefully remove one by cutting it off at the soil line. You don’t want to pull it out as you may pull out both. Spacing instructions will be on the back of the seeds packet. Do it gradually and eat the thinnings as you go.
2) Mulching – We mulch to suppress weeds, to keep the soil warm in the winter, and to preserve moisture in the spring. Lay down some sheets of newspaper between rows and cover with compost, hay, or mulch from the city. Mulch can be turned into the soil the following season.
3) Fertilization – Compost is the best organic fertilizer. When compost is used for mulching the nutrients filter into the ground whenever it is watered. Another excellent organic fertilizer is worm tea (for any of you with worm bins). Fish emulsion is also good.
4) Pests – Be very observant, check the underside of leaves. Aphids, cabbage worms, white flies, etc can be removed by hand or with a gentle spray of water. Slugs and snails are deterred by surrounding seedlings with a ring of eggshells. Any diseased plants should be thrown away and not put into the compost bin.

Leafy vegetables like lettuce, spinach, swiss chard, cilantro we begin harvesting the outer leaves first, that way we can harvest over a longer period of time. There will be a tendency to pull out the entire plant, warn against this until the plant has fully matured. Peas and beans do best when harvested regularly. Use scissors or fingernail to cut stem and again warn against pulling out the entire plant when harvesting a single legume. Harvesting is very exciting and students should be rewarded for their accomplishments. Plan a harvest party whenever possible. Talk to kitchen staff about introducing vegetables into lunch program. Recycle your plastic bags and allow students to take home samples.

Project Ideas
1) Los Angeles is a city of many diverse backgrounds. Plant a garden representing all inhabitants: Corn from Mexico, Radishes from China, Beans from the Americas, Melons from the Middle East, Cucumbers and Eggplants from India, Cabbage and Broccoli from Eastern Asia, Potatoes from South America, Sweet Potato from the Carribean, and Yams from Africa.

2) Three Sisters – Native American garden concept consisting of corn, pole beans, and winter squash. All are grown together to compliment one another. Corn provides support for beans, which in turn provides Nitrogen for corn and squash. Squash grows along the ground suppressing weeds.

3) Plan a fundraiser by making decorative pots and selling seedlings of vegetables and flowers.