Lettuce Alone (Maybe With Spinach or Peas) for a Successful School Garden

The school garden has grown in popularity in recent years, whether it consists of a few plastic containers in the corner of a paved school yard, or a group of raised beds on the school lawn. There are many vegetables and herbs that will grow and yield a harvest in even the most modest of gardens. There is also no end to the list of lessons that teachers, students, and parents can harvest from a garden.

Basil in a container.
Basil in a container.

Because the school year ends in May or June in most of the United States, a school garden presents a timing challenge to the teachers, students, and parents who plant and maintain it. Many of the popular vegetables that do well in small gardens, from beans to broccoli, from tomatoes to collard greens, mature later in the season. This means that the students who plant the tomatoes often don’t get to enjoy the tomatoes.

A raised bed garden at a suburban school.
A raised bed garden at a suburban school.

Here’s how one school met that challenge. A K-2 school in northern New Jersey has had a school garden for three years. At the suggestion of one of the first grade teachers, who is also a home gardener, the garden includes lettuce. By the end of May this one school garden can yield two or three harvests of salad greens with still more to come.

Lettuce seeds can be planted in the school garden early in the spring. Lettuce grows best in the cooler weeks of April and May. Best of all, with lettuce the whole plant above the root is edible. That means that the smaller lettuce plants can be harvested, cleaned, and eaten as a means of thinning the garden. Think baby mixed greens. As the remaining plants continue to grow, the leaves can be harvested and the plants will continue to grow new leaves. Take care to wash the greens thoroughly. A salad spinner will remove the water after each washing.

Although it might seem improbable, the lettuce from this garden is a real crowd-pleaser. Even in this suburban setting the children and some of the adults who sample the harvest are surprised by how much flavor fresh-from-the-garden greens can deliver.

What kind of lettuce gives you this kind of harvest? Look for mixed greens, sometimes called mesclun. Read the package to see what varieties you will get. You might be surprised to find things like mustard greens and dandelions in the mix. Don’t worry; the dandelions are different from the ones you pull out of your lawn and they won’t infect any nearby turf unless they are allowed to flower and go to seed.

Are there other crops that can be planted and harvested in the spring before school lets out for the summer? Spinach fits that description. In northern New Jersey spinach seeds can be planted as soon as the soil can be worked. Mid-March is not too early. Peas also thrive in cool weather; look for varieties of peas with edible pods. Ask your local garden center staff for their recommendations. Feel to post your own in the comments section of this post!

The school garden season is winding down for this school year, but it’s not too early to plan for next year, or even to think about some fall plantings. Best wishes for success with your own school or home or community garden.

With a tip of the hat to Jodi Mattock Walsh for suggesting this post, thanks as always for stopping by!

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