By Stephanie Campbell, MLIS
Building on the rise of STEAM education and farm to table initiatives, library gardens and gardening programs provide a wealth of learning (and partnership) opportunities. Our interior spaces are often stretched to the limit. Utilizing outdoor spaces for programming is a great way to illustrate how the library’s mission transcends its physical walls.
In my time as a branch manager, a library garden was the solution to an outdated, unattractive area of the library landscape. Through volunteer help, we cleared the overgrown shrubs and built raised beds. My children’s librarian and I had great success in creating a series of formal and informal programs specifically geared toward children and their caregivers.
For new construction and renovations, some libraries forgo formal landscaping to include a library garden. Is there an outdoor spot you can convert to this use — a courtyard, patch of lawn, even a parking stall?
Kick it off with seed planting for hardy vegetables in the early spring: carrots, radishes, onions, chard, and kale. Pushing seeds into the soil is a great sensory exercise for toddlers and preschoolers, as is seeing colorful plants and smelling aromatic herbs. Follow up with summer plantings for such things as tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, or whatever your space and climate dictate.
Involve children in as many steps as possible, preparing the soil, planting seeds and seedlings, watering, harvesting, and even clearing out and winterizing after the growing season. There can be teachable moments all along the way about plant diseases, insects, and animals.
Just make sure you and your attendees aren’t afraid to get dirty! And put all thoughts of tidiness out of your mind. Your garden will not have even rows or correct plant spacing. I actually recommend overcrowding since there will invariably be plant casualties as the children work on their fine motor skills in gently planting and plucking.
At a minimum, your young attendees are learning how to listen, follow instructions, and take turns. But they are also learning where food comes from and that vegetables don’t need to look perfect in order to be perfectly edible. Whether or not you actually encourage eating, allowing your participants to take home the harvest is something you would need to think about in advance.
In addition to formal, planned garden activities such as planting day and harvest day, my children’s librarian incorporated the garden into other programs, making it a key component of school and daycare visits and an ending activity following storytimes.
Container gardens are also a space-saving and user-friendly option, and there are all kinds of fun things to grow. Just Google “trash can potatoes.”
Not into vegetables? How about a butterfly garden? Don’t have your own space? See if there are any opportunities to piggyback on a school or community garden.
The USDA’s Cooperative Extension System can be a great resource to help get you started, with connections to master gardeners and even free supplies, such as composters.
High schoolers and college students often need community service projects, and this could provide you with extra hands. In my case, building on the success of our initial two raised beds, we added two more, plus a hand-built compost bin via an Eagle Scout project. Through one of our local watershed organizations, we installed a rain barrel to use for watering.
Garden centers will often give away expired seeds. Germination rates may be slightly reduced, but the extra seeds are always helpful. Just mix some current-year seeds in with the expired ones as little hands tend to dump rather than scatter. Ask for a discount on plants and garden supplies in exchange for a naming opportunity or sponsorship publicity.
In my experience, a library garden was a fantastic addition, providing learning and exploration for all ages across many disciplines. Adults found inspiration for photography, art, and nature journaling. After our first year, we got many offers of free plants from local garden enthusiasts. Plus most people just can’t resist watching how your garden grows!
Tell us your stories of inventive outdoor programming!
Stephanie Campbell has worked for more than 20 years in public, academic, and special libraries. She is an avid gardener, bicyclist, and kayaker. Click here for more.