School Gardens: Building Friendships, Reviving Dead Soil

“The greatest healing therapy is friendship and love.” ~ Hubert H. Humphrey

Nearly two years ago, I was approached with how to start up an elementary school garden. All the necessary tools were already in place — spade, shovel, rake, raised bed boxes, picnic tables. The teachers and students were enthusiastic. But there was one crucial thing missing from the garden soil:  life.

Starting something from ‘dead’ may seem like a daunting task. The soil had been ignored and compacted, swinging between being beaten by rain or burned by the sun. Nothing outside of grasses were green, not a single earthworm wriggled out of the first shovelful of soil. It was dead, dirt.

I knew what it would take to bring soil back to life. Some might choose to visit the garden store with a big budget, or stock up on fancy fertilizers and chipped mulch, but I already had plenty of organics on hand for my own garden, hand-picked from curbs. My wall of bags was long and high! A few deliveries of these inputs in the van — leaves, grocery store produce waste, cardboard, and home compost — would be all that’s needed.

‘How long will it take before we can plant seeds? Weeks? Months?’ the teacher fretted. She was hopeful yet realistic with this challenge. After all, we were already at the middle of the school year, and only four months away from summer break.

‘Trust me. Trust in organics.’ She would have to see it to believe it.

A First Look — Feb ’17
Dead Soil, Amendments Staged

Only a few hours of digging was required to get the beds ready; in-ground lasagna layers are easy to build once all the materials were on-site. I’ve done this more than a few times before!

‘We can plant straight away.‘ I told the teacher, ‘as the soil is put right back on top, ready for seeds. The organic layers just underneath the surface will both break down and provide nutrients and water to plants, just as the roots are needing them to grow. The Soil Food Web does all the behind-the-scenes work.’

Confident in my physical abilities, I was also stepping out of my comfort zone. This was the first project of its kind for me, with only the knowledge of a few year’s in my own garden to call upon, counting on all the instances I’d failed only to have Nature put me right again. I may not have fully understood why what I was doing worked, but I was certain it did work.

I began educating children on the ways of soil. Soil is the very foundation for everything else that grows from it, and it is just as easy to repair as it is to destroy. The difference between life or death of soil is understanding how it works.

Layering Lasagna Style — Feb ’17

Soil On Top of Compost
Gridded and Ready For Planting Seeds

Happy, Dirty Kids After Planting — Mar ’17

First Edibles — Mar ’17

Root Harvest — April ’17

I have always been a believer in the productivity of healthy soil, a Soil Evangelist. Now that teachers, administration and students were believers too, the school garden ‘pilot program’ would continue into the next school year.

And like the carrots and leafy greens harvested, it too would grow and thrive.

Summer arrived as it usually does, and the garden boxes would be untended for several months, with gates locked and weeds and grasses ignored. In planting zones to the north, gardeners winterize their gardens; that is, they prepare the ground for weeks when nothing will be growing in the ever-present snow and ice. Down here in Zone 9B, I thought it better to ‘summer-ize’ the school gardens instead. It would be important to keep out invasive grasses and discourage weed seeds so we’re not adding unnecessary work in the future.

Once again, free organics came to the rescue. In the course of a week, all ten beds were ready for planting again for the beginning of the fall school session. Grasses which grew wildly stayed out of the protected soil, and the underworld of soil beings — the real reason why organics work so well — continued their work to keep soil alive. And soil is alive!

When an unscheduled hurricane made landfall resulting in epic area flooding, closing schools for weeks, we (people) were set back in our plans. But soil in the gardens never missed a beat. They were ready for planting seeds, like nothing had happened.

Square Foot Plots — Oct ’17
Ready For Seeds!

4th Grade (Late) Planting — Nov ’17

Garden Beds Bursting — Feb ’18

While waiting for seeds to turn into edibles, I ran across an interesting article: Do Plants and Soil Really Talk? The hundreds of millions years old symbiotic relationship between trees and fungi has a name, and I’m certain now it’s this symbiosis that has been making the school garden so successful. Mycorrhizae doesn’t just work for trees; it works for garden plants as well. In fact, some 90% of all plants have evolved alongside a mycorrhizal fungi.

I was intrigued. Is this what I had been encouraging with my style of gardening? Let’s count the ways:

  • Light aeration of the soil provides pathways that oxygen-loving creatures (fungi) can travel; over-working or tilling the soil destroys the fungal mat.
  • Adding organic matter (waste) feeds the world of soil microbes.
  • Inoculating dead soil with living soil (from my own garden), jump-starts the process.
  • Companion- and stagger-planting in square plots lessens disease and insect problems and grows stronger plants.
  • Mulching with leaves (more organics) both feeds the soil and conserves moisture.
  • Not watering intensively with chlorinated water prevents salts build-up in the soil, which chases away aerators (earthworms).
  • Building compost piles in between 4×4 sections provides everything a plant needs — right next door!
  • Piling unused cardboard nearby provides habitat for fungi and other soil decomposers.

Okra Flowering — Aug ’18
Produced all summer with no inputs.

Okra Still Producing — Oct ’17
Center Compost Decomposing

Much like the apple tree does, the body of a fungus — mycelium — fruits to reproduce itself. These are the mushrooms we see sprouting on top of the compost pile, the tip of the proverbial iceberg. It’s easy to forget what we don’t see, the gigantic organism underneath our feet making life happen. Fungi is like a super-highway of water and nutrients moving one way to plants, with sugars coming back to feed the fungi. They help each other.

Stewarding the soil goes beyond all that. In placing organics right next to (or even underneath) where seeds will be planted, we are unwittingly promoting Nature’s oldest friendships.

4th Generation Monarch — Oct’ 18

Planting Seeds — Nov ’18

4×4 Garden (Left)
Center Compost (Right) — Nov ’18

When you go the way of nature rather than against it, all the hard work you normally associate with gardening goes by the wayside, and the joys of puttering in the garden fully takes hold.  If our world is going to survive us, provide for us, continue to thrive with us, re-purposing waste streams and building friendships — soil friendships, garden friendships — is what we need.


~ Shannon @ DirtNKids Blog

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20 thoughts on “School Gardens: Building Friendships, Reviving Dead Soil

    1. I am encouraged that there are a few kids in each of my 15 classes that already garden at home. Of course, they are doing ‘conventional’ gardening, which means regular additions of synthetic micro-nutrients and pesticides (eeek!!), but I’m convinced once they see how easy ‘lazy gardening’ is, they’ll want to bring these concepts home to their parents.

      It’s been a lot of fun for me.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. How wonderful! They look like they are having a blast! What an awesome resource you are for the school. I am sure you will learn a few things also. Too bad all elementary schools do not have this available. Congrats on your experiment! 😉


    1. If I had my way, every primary school would have a garden. Kids learn more from hands on than rote memorization. It’s a joy to answer all their questions; sometimes, they even stump me and I have to research. Never too old to learn!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I’d never heard of Mycorrhizae until the past six months, when a couple of very interesting presenters at native plant society meetings brought slides and outlines and diagrams and made the complex relationships of all those things under the soil understandable.

    I was especially interested in your comment about chlorinated water, and the salts that collect. I began collecting rainwater for my plantsabout three years ago, and it made a big difference. I first noticed that my African violets were turning yellow, and that’s when I learned that our municipal water system had begun using chloramines instead of just chlorine. I made the switch, the plants greened up, and all was well!


    1. Thank you for the thoughtful comment, Linda. Rainwater is what plants need because that’s what they’ve evolved alongside. What element makes up the majority of our breathable atmosphere? (Hint: plants need it to be green, not CO2.) We barely ponder of how our ‘treated’ substances implicates the natural world; treated water may lengthen our lives, but it adds substances to the soil that would otherwise not be there. Nitrogen infuses rainfall.

      If you have time, the podcast linked at the end is a very summation of mycorrhiza and how it works told by Suzanne Simard. She’s a great story teller!

      PS Heading to Brazoria NWR to spot a Rusty Blackbird that’s been there. If you happen to be there too drop me a line!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I am going down, but I’m not sure when. Have you seen the new sculpture and developing waterfall/garden in front of the Discovery Center? It’s fabulous — I’m going to put it on my blog one of these next times. I just smiled and smiled when I saw it!

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Ed Barrios, the Pres. of Friends of Brazoria WF, is going to get me more details on sculptor, etc. He gave me some history on who it honors, etc. Really cool.


  3. This is amazing! I am moving to Oregon soon where I will have a very small plot of dirt to work with (I am very excited about this) but I know nothing about gardening! I hope to use your blog for some helpful info and tips on organic gardening. 🙂 I’d also like to stick to native plants. Very excited!


    1. Whatever I can do to help your garden experience be more successful, Erin, I’m here to help! Have a listen to that podcast at the end. Suzanne Simard began in forestry up your way, and her account of that soil relationship is downright eye-opening.

      As for what to plant in your zone, find a local horticulture chapter who specializes in xeriscaping. A great place to start.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Thanks, I will! 🙂 One of my first tasks when I arrive is to do a soil profile and see what I’ve actually got. I’m hoping native plants and organic gardening are a bit more prevalent there, being Oregon and all. We’ll see how I get on, I’ve never had much of a green thumb for indoor plants, but you’ve got to start somewhere.


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