Work hard now, work less later. Now the fun begins and it’s time to get dirty! If you are installing a container garden, purchase the containers and the soil, put them where you want them and fill them with soil (a container full of soil is hard to move!). With an in-ground garden, you will need to do quite a bit more work—but your hard work will pay off. The Law of the Farm is at work here—thoughtful preparation and hard work in getting the site ready will save you many headaches and frustration as the garden starts growing.
Clear the land. Start with a clean, flat, weed-free site! Weed the site, water it well, wait three weeks for remaining weed seeds to sprout, and then weed again—now you know it is clean.
Lay out the garden. Locate the planting beds, primary walkway (must be 42″ wide to be wheelchair accessible), working areas between beds (36″ is minimum to enable children to work in adjacent planting areas simultaneously), a composting area, tool storage area, and seating or group area.
Build the planting beds—raise those plants high.
Types of Planting Beds
Raised beds—a raised mound of soil. This bed is the simplest and cheapest to build, but it is the least secure and stable when you have kids running around in the garden and is the hardest to maintain. Build by digging out paths between beds down 4-8″ and mounding that soil into the bed area. Mix in your soil amendments.
Planter boxes—build the boxes yourself (use recycled plastic lumber or a wood that holds up well to moisture such as redwood or cedar) or purchase pre-made boxes of recycled plastic. By creating physical barriers between your garden and the rest of the environment, these beds minimize weeds, keep plants in and kids out of the planting area, are easier to work in and maintain, and require minimal ongoing maintenance work after construction.
Size of Planting Beds
Width—Raised beds are generally 18-20″ wide. Planter boxes should be no more than 4 feet wide if children can work from both sides of the box, or 2 feet wide if the box is only accessible on one side.
Length—Raised beds can be any length. To preserve the structural integrity, planter boxes should be no longer than 8-10 feet.
Height—Raised beds should be 4-8″ high. Planter boxes sunk in soil should be built at least 10-12″ high. This allows you to sink the bottom 4-6″ in the ground to minimize weed encroachment and still be at least 6″ finished height off of the ground.
- Wheelchair accessible height is 28″.
- Wood or plastic beds on placed pavement should be at least 30″ deep in order to prevent the heat of the pavement from overheating the roots and to minimize the loss of moisture.
The better your soil, the better your garden will grow! The gardening saying is that you plant a 25¢ plant in a 75¢ hole. Your soil will sustain your plants so give them a good start.
Clean dirt—no weeds, rocks or debris
Soil amendments—improve soil structure to improve water retention and absorption, provide good drainage and supply important plant nutrients. Use a soil test or consult with your local nursery or landscape professional for recommendations specific to your site geology. Cover the entire bed/box with at least 3-4 inches of amendment and work into soil down about a foot. Soil amendments may be purchased in bags or delivered in bulk by the yard.
Fertilizers—if using fertilizers, be careful not to use too much or you can damage tender young plants.
Make watering easy so it gets done! Providing enough water at the right times is critical to a successful growing season. Irrigation can be as simple as moving a hose, or as complex (and costly) as installing a drip system on an automatic timer that keeps the garden watered during school breaks and weekends. Here are some of your options.
Hose and nozzle. This system is the most time consuming and least dependable. It works fine with a container garden, but is not the best option for a large in-ground garden. Adult supervision will be needed for younger students to ensure that the plants get enough water. Dig a small hole in the soil after a watering session to show students that water on the surface does not necessarily mean there is enough water to feed the roots. Hose with sprinkler. A sprinkler attachment on a hose can make it easier to be sure that the water gets to all the plants. Proper location of the sprinkler will be critical.
Soaker hose. A soaker hose lets water percolate through it into the garden. Unlike sprinklers, which waste significant water due to evaporation, a soaker hose delivers the water right to the soil. Test the radius of the water seep to be sure that the water is reaching where you need it.
Drip irrigation system. This is the most efficient way to water your plants. Drip tubing brings the water wherever it is needed, and thoughtfully selected heads deliver the water in the proper quantity and location. Contact local professionals to help you design and install the system.
Timers—”egg” timers, battery operated, electrical. Irrigation timers come in many forms. If you have access to electricity in the garden, an electrical timer is the most reliable. Where you do not have electricity, you may use a battery-operated timer or an “egg timer” that you manually turn on for a set time and then it turns off automatically.
Mulch, mulch, mulch! Minimize water evaporation and weed growth by providing a significant amount (3–4″) of mulch over your beds. Straw, leaf mulch or clippings are all good choices. Check with local gardeners to find out what they recommend that is cheap and easily available.
Cover the walkways between your beds with shredded tree mulch, straw, gravel—anything to help keep down weeds and minimize muddy shoes.