On volunteers and getting the job done

One of the most important factors for the success of a school garden might not be the square footage, the germination rate, or even the expertise of a garden leader. I’m here to tell you that the most important ingredient in creating a lasting school garden is interest.

I almost said excitement was the most important element, but in my experience, excitement fades. It’s been great so far this semester to talk to people at my school and in the community who are excited about having a school garden project. However, the majority of those supporters haven’t made it out to our garden workshops or contributed anything more than a kind word. I am not ungrateful for that encouragement, especially on tough days. Realistically though, it takes a village.

Here at Yellville-Summit, we have begun hosting volunteer work parties. Our preparations for a winter garden simply kept getting pushed back, especially when the weekend temperatures stayed in the 70’s into November. It was easy to pretend that it would never turn cold, yet here I am, during a week where the high hasn’t gotten to 40, and the temperature inside our (unheated) greenhouse doesn’t go about freezing until after lunch.

It seems as though a completed greenhouse is our white whale. We have had something greenhouse related on our to-do lists since my first week on the job. We’ve relied a lot on the help of volunteers to make the final push to finish. Pulling plastic proved our number one delicate and challenging task. Pulling plastic involves taking a single sheet of plastic and stretching it over the frame to form the roof of the greenhouse. You need a lot of hands to do the actual pulling and attaching; you need a day with very little wind, otherwise you’ll get picked up and blown to Missouri! I’ve been told that at this time of year in the Ozarks, on nice clear days, the wind comes up. On days that it isn’t windy, it’s probably raining or snowing.

We scheduled three days to pull plastic. The first day, we cancelled because it was raining. The second day, we had about 12 people come out to help; however,  it was too windy to, so we worked on the end walls instead. The final day, we had a small window of time before the wind came up. We called on some high school volunteers to come out after their lunch and a group of community volunteers who also came after their lunch break. At long last, everything was secured, tightened, and fastened against the wind and the cold weather.

These volunteer days, held over the weekend, and open to parents, students, teachers, community members, and anyone who might want to lend a hand, are really inspiring. Our aim is to make these work days fun, informative, and productive. We build the day around a certain task to finish. This past weekend, we needed to build raised beds inside of our greenhouse. We started the day with a brief overview of season extension techniques and cold weather crops. After squaring the ends of lots of cedar boards, we had a mulching crew and a construction crew. After about an hour of work, I drifted off toward the kitchen to prepare our edible rewards for the volunteers. We had roasted root veggies and sautéed greens—eating both the tops and the bottoms of many of the same plants. Turnips and beets, collards, carrots, rainbow chard, and tatsoi.

As most of my projects tend to be, this was kind of a fly by the seat of our pants endeavor. No matter how many times I measure and level my cuts, one board will always be off. I’m not good at being precise. I’ve learned to live with this, but working with new people is always interesting. We are lucky enough to have quite a few people in the area with expertise in carpentry and woodworking, in addition to farming and gardening. I’m generally the least experienced person in the bunch. What I think is acceptably straight and what the woodworker down the street thinks is quite different. I have learned to stand back and let those more experienced take the lead. For example, this weekend I provided a pile of local cedar planks, a workshop with tools, a draft of the proposed greenhouse layout, and the instruction to do whatever he thought was best to get it done. The project took longer than the two hours I had allotted for it, but when I hand the reigns over the results can be pretty spectacular.

For me, the most surprising part of the day was who actually showed up in support. Many of our ten volunteers had no connection to the school or the project – most of them don’t work here or have kids in the program. They simply heard about the garden workday and wanted to come help. They aren’t just coming to bring their kids, or because a teacher told them about the opportunity. I’m particularly excited about those volunteers. Those volunteers are very likely to keep coming back and stay invested.

Our garden would not be as far along, as productive, or as likely to continue into the future without the help of our volunteers.

by Sara Fulton-Koerbling