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Maintaining your CACFP Garden

May 18, 2022

Maintaining garden (4 × 3 in)

How to start a garden at your CACFP site, pt 3

This is part 3 of a multi-part series on gardening in the CACFP. Community gardens, childcare gardens, school gardens and farm to table are increasingly popular in our community. And for good reason! When children garden, they’re known to eat more fruits and vegetables, have a better understanding of nutrition, improve science achievement, improve social skills, and improve their attitude on the environment. This segment is all about garden maintenance. In the previous segments we explored questions to ask before you begin and planting your garden! In future installations we’ll talk about harvesting and keeping children engaged. Stay tuned! 

The lifecycle of garden maintenance

Garden maintenance is unlike other routine maintenance you may be familiar with. Changing the oil on your center’s van or replacing the batteries in the smoke detector every six months are fixed maintenance tasks that occur on a determined schedule. Replacing burnt out lightbulbs are responsive maintenance tasks that you perform according to need. Maintaining your CACFP garden is a combination of predetermined tasks at set times (such the batteries in the smoke detector) and dynamic, responsive tasks (like the lightbulb), and even something more intuitive than that.  

Garden Maintenance by season

We’ll break down maintenance by season, but these tasks are not confined to one season alone.  

Summer (growing season)

This is the maintenance and care you already know about: Watering, weeding, feeding and pest control.  

First and foremost: you have to water the plants. Perhaps you have drip irrigation or soaker hoses running down the rows of your plants, or maybe your plan is to fill watering cans and hand them to a team of preschoolers. Whatever it is, keeping your plants consistently hydrated is necessary to their health.  

Aside from watering, there are a few other big concerns this time of year: weed and pest management. For managing weeds, you’ll want to put a thick layer of mulch down around your garden as soon as your seeds sprout or you plant your transplants. There are many options for mulch, from bags of ready mulch at big box garden centers to shredded leaves from last fall’s trees. Thick mulch will reduce weeds and help the soil retain moisture. Some weeds will still break through the mulch. When that happens, pulling the weeds quickly will be key to the health and happiness of your plants—they don’t want to be crowded out by unwelcome guests.  

Feeding your garden simply means to add fertilizer, plant food, compost or soil amendments. Typically, in the summertime you’ll be working with food-safe fertilizer. Some options include compost tea, worm castings, or even a big box store commercial option. For each option there are recommended intervals and concentrations for feeding for your garden.  

Pest management is another major task in the growing season. In this area, prevention is the best cure. Look for lures, traps and other options to prevent pests, and spend time out in the garden daily to look for signs of trouble. Insecticides will be problematic for CACFP site gardens because of the risk of exposing young helpers to dangerous chemical ingredients. If signs of pests occur, such as chewed leaves or withered leaves, eggs on the undersides of leaves, or visible bugs, do a little internet research to determine the severity of the problem. Will these pests simply make your plants unsightly or truly cause them to be unhealthy? Can they easily be manually removed (i.e. picked off by your fingers)? Is there a tried-and-true non-chemical method of dealing with them? A classic example of a non-chemical intervention is to handle aphid infestations by releasing ladybugs, which are widely and inexpensively available online.  

Fall (after harvest season) 

Once the harvesting is done, there are many things to do to prepare your garden for winter: 

  1. Remove all spent plants. Clear away your old fruits and vegetables, all the way down to the soil (though there’s no reason to pull the roots out). If you are composting, break the old plant debris into smaller pieces and add to your compost pile.   
  1. Weed and weed again. Get in another round of really good weeding. By the end of the season, weeds will have gone to seed. One weed can produce thousands of seeds that if left to overwinter will be a real headache come next summer. Rip those puppies out.  
  1. Gather up leaves. But don’t throw them away! Leaving thick layers of wet leaves on your grass or around the base of your trees can foster disease, but shredding those leaves and keeping them in a few piles to be used for next year’s summer mulch is a thrifty, environmentally friendly strategy.  
  1. Test your soil. Your beautiful fruits and vegetables got all their nutrition from somewhere, right? Sending a soil sample off to your local ag extension office is usually  free or low cost, and it will guarantee you’ll know when to replace the nutrients you’re borrowing from the ground.  
  1. Plant. Some plants, like garlic (as well as wildflowers!) like to be planted in the fall and overwintered in order to produce a great harvest.  

  

Winter

Winter is a quieter time for your CACFP garden, but there are still several important tasks to keep yourself and your participants busy. First, winter is a good time to assess your gardening tools and supplies. Take inventory of what you have; make repairs to tools as needed, included oiling handles and sharpening blades. Wash out buckets and planters. Begin gathering seed-starting supplies. Winter can also be a good time to add new projects to your garden, such as a compost pile, or building an additional raised bed.  

Next, you’ll want to begin planning your new year’s crops and order seeds. You can view seed catalogs digitally, but most seed companies still print hard copy catalogs and will send them to you if you’d like your participants to participate in flipping through them and identifying likely fruits and veg for the coming year’s garden.  

Spring

Using the guidance on seed packets with respect to first and last frost dates, spring is the time to start seeds indoors. Don’t put all your attention on watching new life sprout inside, though! There’s still some work to be done outdoors. Ensure your physical garden space is prepared to receive new plants when the time is right—is it cleared away of debris? Did you feed your soil according to the results of your soil test last fall? Is your mulch ready to go?  

CACFP Participants and Garden Maintenance

Garden maintenance, especially in the summer, is big, exciting gardening. This is the time that children can really get dirty and be involved in the action. It’s fun to water a plant, pull a weed or spot an insect. The opportunities to engage and inquire in this phase are endless: can they spot a weed? How can they tell if it’s a plant that belongs in the garden or one that does not? How can they we tell what parts of the garden need more water? Allowing children to ask and explore as they learn to anticipate the needs of the garden and help meet those needs teaches them about science, cause and effect and even develops empathetic skills. That’s all for now! Next up we’ll talk about harvesting. For an in-depth gardening guide, take a look at this resource from Team Nutrition.