Starting a School Garden

school garden

The key to a successful school garden is in the planning. No matter the size and style of your garden, you’ll need to answer important questions about who will use it, where it will be located in order to sustain the plants you plan to grow, and how it will be maintained. The following is a checklist of the crucial steps to planning and maintaining a successful school garden.

1. Envision the garden

Whether you’re imagining a few containers or a more permanent installation, you need a plan. A modest start with the possibility of future expansion is a good place to begin. And don’t forget to include the students in the planning! You want them to be a part of every phase of the project. Here are some important questions you will need to answer:

  • How many children/classrooms will participate?
  • Do you want an in-ground or container garden?
  • Who will be responsible for maintenance?
  • How will you fund the startup and long-term process?
  • Who is on your garden team?
  • What is the role of parent and community volunteers?

2. Get permission

Once your group has agreed on a vision, you’ll need to get the entire school community on board. Permission, support, and help from these groups will be vital to the success of your garden:

District partners: superintendent, maintenance, and operations

School partners: principal, teachers, PTA, janitorial staff

Community members: Approach potential supporters/donors from the community and let them know how backing the garden can help them. Among the rewards you can offer: signs in the garden, grand-opening honors, thank-you letters and posters, media coverage.

City partners: city council members, city manager, parks and recreation and public works departments

Local businesses: nurseries, lumber yards, hardware stores, banks, health organizations, and supermarkets

3. Choose a site

With support secured, you can now get specific about the garden design. Every garden has certain minimum requirements that must be present in order for it to grow:

Water. Close, easy access to a water source is essential. The water must be from a potable source (reclaimed water is not safe for consumption or handling by students). The water source must also be nearby because it will be used almost daily. You do not want students to be dragging hoses across the schoolyard every day.

Sunlight. A minimum of six hours of direct sunlight per day is necessary to grow most vegetables and flowers. Check potential sites throughout the day and anticipate seasonal changes in the sun’s location. Watch out for shading from nearby trees, buildings, hills, and so on.

Access. The site should be close to classrooms and easily accessible. If the garden is too far away, it will be difficult to get and keep teachers involved in the garden.

Healthy soil. If you plan an in-ground garden, find out what was previously located in the area you’re considering, and beware of potential toxins from prior dumping, asphalt, and herbicides. Also look for signs of life in the soil. Weeds and bugs are good! To confirm that the soil is safe, conduct a soil test (home versions are available at many nurseries or online). You will also need adequate drainage—you don’t want flooding or standing water to suffocate your plants. Likewise, if you’re planning a container garden, you’ll need to purchase or prepare a well-amended potting soil. Have your local nursery or landscape professional advise you on a good soil mix for your area, and avoid all soil and amendments that contain potentially toxic byproducts, such as sewage sludge.

Safe materials. If you build planter boxes, be sure you use sturdy products that will hold up (recycled plastic lumber or redwood or cedar) and beware of products that leach toxins (no pressure-treated wood or old railroad ties). For containers, there are many great options to consider—be creative and try to reuse or recycle! Old wine barrels or nursery tree boxes can be great and inexpensive. But beware of leaching containers (containers lined with tar or treated woods are toxic to plants and people).

Sufficient space. Does the site fit your garden plan? Do you have plenty of room for students to work, walk between plantings, and sit for group discussions? Do you have space for composting and tool storage?

Security. Be sure the site is located in an area that will discourage vandalism and minimize damage from playground havoc, dogs, and foot traffic. Consider a fence to create a sense of place.

Permanence. Will the site remain available for the foreseeable future? Or is your garden design easy to relocate if a permanent site is not available?

4. Create your garden

Now the fun begins: It’s time to get dirty! If you are install-ing a container garden, purchase the containers and the soil, put the containers where you want them, and fill them with soil. (A container full of soil is hard to move!)

For an in-ground garden, you will need to do quite a bit more work—but your effort 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 in the future as the garden starts growing. Here’s what to do:

Clear the land. Start with a clean, flat site. Weed the site, water it well, wait three weeks for the remaining weed seeds to sprout, and weed again—now you know the land is clean.

Lay out the garden. Pinpoint locations for the plant-ing beds, primary walkway (it must be 42’’ wide to be wheelchair accessible), working areas between beds (5 feet is the minimum to enable children to work in adjacent planting areas simultaneously), a composting area, a tool-storage area, and a seating or group area.

Build the planting beds. There are two main considerations when it comes to building the beds.

Type: A raised bed is a raised mound of soil. This bed is the simplest and cheapest to build but is the least secure and stable when you have children running around in the garden. This type of bed is also the most difficult to maintain. To build it, dig out paths between the beds (they should be 4” to 8” deep) and mound that soil into the bed area. Then mix in your soil amendments.

A planter box creates a physical barrier 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 after they’re constructed. You can build the boxes yourself (using recycled plastic lumber or a wood that holds up well to moisture, such as redwood or cedar) or purchase pre-made boxes made of recycled plastic.

Size: Raised beds are generally 18” to 20” wide and 4” to 8” high. They can be any length. Planter boxes should be no more than 4 feet wide if you want children to work from both sides or 2 feet wide if the box will be accessible on one side. To preserve the structural integrity, they should be no longer than 8 to 10 feet.

If they are sunk into soil, they should be built at least 10” to 12” high. This allows you to sink the bottom 4” to 6” into the ground to minimize weed encroachment and still have at least 6” of the box off the ground. Wheelchair-accessible height is 28”.

If your beds are placed on pavement, they 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.

Prepare the soil. 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 you want to give them a good start. The dirt should be cleared of weeds, rocks, and debris before you begin, and you will want to add soil amendments to improve the soil structure, which will in turn improve water retention and absorption, provide good drainage, and supply important plant nutrients. When choosing what you need, you can use a soil test or consult with a local nursery or landscape professional for recommendations specific to your site geology. Cover the entire bed or box with at least 3 to 4 inches of amendment and work it down into the soil for about a foot. More and more schools through-out the country are creating gardens on site! Students can help with every phase of a garden project, from planning through harvest.

Soil amendments may be purchased in bags or delivered in bulk by the yard. Another note on preparing your soil: If you use a fertilizer, be careful not to use too much or you can damage tender young plants.

Set up an irrigation system. Your goal is to make watering easy so it gets done!Providing enough water at the right times is crucial 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. Teaching tip: Dig a small hole in the soil after a watering session to show students that having water on the surface does not necessarily mean there is enough to feed the roots.

Hose with a sprinkler. A sprinkler attachment on a hose can make it easier to ensure that the water gets to all the plants. Proper location of the sprinkler is vital.

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 directly to the soil. Test the radius of the water seep to be sure the water is going where you need it to go.

Drip irrigation system. This is the most efficient way to water your plants. Drip tubing brings the water wherever it’s needed, and thoughtfully selected heads deliver the water in the proper quantity and location. Local professionals can help you design and install the system. When choosing a timer system, you have several choices. If you have access to electricity in the garden, an electric timer is the most reliable. In places where you do not have electricity, you can use a battery-operated timer or an “egg timer” that is manually turned on for a set time and turns off automatically.

Mulch your beds. You can 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 inexpensive and readily available. The walkways between your beds can also be covered with shredded tree mulch, straw, gravel—anything to help keep down weeds and minimize muddy shoes.

5. Plant the garden

The time for planting has arrived! Follow these tips for success:

Choose the right crops for the right season. What you plant will depend on the local climate, time of year, and desired growing time to harvest. A school in Southern California, for example, can plant lettuce from seed in February and eat a delicious salad in May. A school in Michigan will have snow on the ground in February and will need to start seeds indoors or buy nursery transplants for planting outside in late spring in order to eat salad in May. A local nursery or an experienced gardener can help you make a plan. Whatever you choose to plant, follow the directions on the seed package or transplant for planting depth and plant spacing.

Consider a theme. To enhance learning for students, you can tie your planting to your curriculum or state standards in science, social studies, language arts, and art.

Recruit volunteers. The more help you have, the better! Adult supervision will be crucial for getting the work done well and in a timely fashion.

Gather the necessary tools. Once the gardens are built, the only tools you’ll need will be a trowel for nursery transplants. Holes for seeds can be made with little fingers. You’ll also need a hose with a spray nozzle for watering newly planted beds, spot watering as necessary, and garden cleanup.

Clarify expectations for students. You can ensure a successful planting session by establishing clear directions for the children before you go outside. Set and review rules for working in the garden, and be sure everyone knows how to use the tools safely and how to treat the plants with kindness.

Assign tasks. Once the garden is planted, it needs to be maintained. You’ll need a supervising adult to oversee the maintenance if it’s done by students, who can be assigned to one of four jobs:

  • Watering. They’ll learn when to water and how to water thoroughly.
  • Weeding. They’ll learn what to weed (lettuce and weed seedlings can look a lot alike!) and how to pull weeds out by the roots.
  • Pest patrol. One of the important lessons taught through school gardens is environmental stewardship. For the health of the children and the earth, a school garden needs to be an organic garden. Your local nursery can advise you on organic methods for dealing with common pests and plant diseases.
  • Reporting. Students can help keep an ongoing record of the successes and struggles in your garden season. This information can then be used to improve your garden plan for the next year. Garden journaling is also a great way to teach language arts in the garden.

Celebrate! Host a celebration of your harvest because you have all worked so hard! Be sure to plan a special event and invite everyone who helped your school build the garden. And don’t forget to alert the local news media and provide your own coverage through your social media channels.

Adapted from The Growing Great School Garden Curriculum Workbook.© Copyright GrowingGreat 2008. To obtain a copy of the workbook, visit growinggreat.org.

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