More than 50 years ago Rachel Carson made the public aware of the dangers of chemicals to ecosystems through her research and book “Silent Spring.” She warned of the use of fungicides, herbicides, and pesticides, the ‘biocides’ still commonly in use today in commercial agriculture and home gardens. Children are particularly vulnerable to chemicals because of their still developing nervous systems, immune system and detoxifying enzymes.
Organic gardening offers the best practices for chemical-free gardening with children while engaging students in problem solving. Help children view the garden as an ecosystem where all components are interconnected — including them. Organic gardeners see themselves as part of nature as opposed to conquering it. Weeds and pests are part of the plan along with natural checks and balances. How does ‘organic’ look in the school garden?
Nature is the model recycler. Emulate by composting schoolyard leaves and garden waste and then returning it to replenish beds. Include indoor pencil sharpener shavings, shredded school paper, and cafeteria food preparation waste in the composting process. Collect, dry, and store seeds from garden fruits, vegetables and flowers to replant next year.
If the garden was unattended over summer, weeds are thriving. Weeds compete for water and nutrients and shelter insects. Schedule a ‘weed weigh-in’ to pull weeds up from the root with hand tools and hoe.
Or smother the weed patch with multilayers of mulch or opaque black plastic, old carpet, or cardboard. Solarization lets the sun’s heat kill weed seeds. Cover the weeded plot with clear plastic and seal the edges with soil for at least 6 weeks. Dead-plant mulches made from cover crops such as wheat, oats, or rye suppress weeds while adding nutrients to the soil. Mow down the cover crop and tuck in new seasonal seedlings.
Invite a weed ID expert or ethnobotanist to class and use weed field guides to identify the invaders. Find out about beneficial weeds.
Insects are a necessary part of any garden. Since 97 percent of insects are either helpful or harmless, before waging warfare get to know the enemies and allies.
Conduct pest patrols where student sleuths scout for insects and evidence of insects (chewed leaves, cocoons). Mount a garden insect collection while learning the identity. Mapping which insects gravitate to what plants and when assists in planning for the future. Merely adjusting the timing of planting can reduce insect problems.
Organic gardeners use a variety of methods for controlling insect enemies. Larger pests like tomato hornworms are handpicked off and dowsed in soapy water. A strong spray of water from the garden hose targets smaller trespassers like aphids and whiteflies.
Students can compete to make and test homemade herbal recipes for battling bugs. Blast the Bugs spray combines 6 cloves of minced garlic, 1 small finely chopped onion, 1 tbsp. dish soap and 1 quart of water. Blend all together and steep overnight before spray misting plants.
Challenge children to design and set physical pest barriers with recycled materials. Floating fabric row covers allow light, water and air into newly seeded beds but barricade pests. Cutworm collars made from milk cartons or yogurt containers cut to fit into the soil and around the plant thwarts chewing and boring insects from reaching plant stems. Maggot mats, 5” square carpet pieces slit to the center to surround a plant stem, deter cabbage maggot flies from laying eggs in soil near seedlings.
Making and hanging insect traps is sticky fun. Paint bookmark size strips of cardboard or plastic a bright yellow before coating with horticulture glue like Tanglefoot. Students scrape off insects and recoat as needed.
Growing “trap crops” like amaranth, buckwheat, nasturtium or sunflowers around the perimeter of the garden attracts pests to them rather than to your food crops. When pests enter the ‘trap,’ hand pick off or snare with an insect vacuum.
Design scarecrows to deter birds from harvesting your crops.
Arlene Marturano is an educator, consultant, master gardener, and freelance writer. Read more of Arlene Marturano’s garden writings at suite101.com and www.scgarden learning.com