Kids in school garden. Photo provided by USDA farm to school team

Tools to Help You Start A School Garden

Many excellent school garden programs have sprouted up across the country. Gardens at schools provide food for improving children’s diet and nutrition, an area for learning, a place for pleasure and recreation, and a continuing lesson in environmental stewardship and civic pride. But how do they take root? 

School gardens are sown with similar considerations but vary based on geographic location, funding, grade level involvement, size, type, and purpose. For anyone looking to begin a gardening program at a school follow these tips before you get growing:

  • Evaluate Your Available Space  

Who is your gardening serving? What are the needs? What kinds of space are available? Parking lots, courtyards, rooftops, greenhouses, and schoolyards can all be potential sites. Also consider options within the community like public parks, vacant lots, places of worship, nature centers, senior living centers, or community gardens.

To help determine the best uses for the space available, evaluate:

  • Is the site easy and safe for both students and teachers to access?
  • Is there a nearby and dependable water source?
  • Is the site protected from vandals, rodents or other potential threats?
  • Is the area big enough for future growth?
  • Is the site exposed to sunlight at least 6 hours a day, if planting flowers, herbs and vegetables?
  • Is the soil contaminated with lead or other heavy metals?

 

  • Find Resources and Build Partnerships

Forming local partnerships is an excellent way to leverage resources and gain access to needed materials, tools, funding, volunteers, and technical assistance. You can contact a USDA Service Center for technical assistance or a local Cooperative Extension office who can provide useful, practical and research-based gardening information for free. Enlist the help of a local Extension Master Gardener for advice and assistance in keeping your garden maintained and sustained throughout the year including the summer months.

 

  • Check the Health of Your Soil

Healthy soil is essential for a successful school garden. It’s important to collect soil samples to identify the soil quality of the proposed site. Have your soil tested for pH, nutrients and lead contamination by a soil-testing laboratory. Contact your local Cooperative Extension office to learn how to take a soil sample and where to send it for analysis. If your site is contaminated, the simplest solution may be to garden in raised beds or a mobile garden planter. Don’t rule out gardening indoors instead of outside.

 

  • Collaborate on the Design

Get the entire community – parents, students, teachers, administrators, food service staff, and local partners – involved. Encourage students of every grade to share their ideas and include them. Hold a brainstorming session, collect design concepts and develop one design plan. Think big yet start small.

 

  • Select Plants

Choose a palette of plants that are safe (no poisonous fruits, large thorns or weak limbs), low maintenance, desirable in size and form, and suitable to your climate. Have older students survey younger students about what to grow. Try selecting plants based on a theme, such as a storybook, food recipe or science lesson, to connect with what is being taught in the classroom.

 

Helpful Tip

Selecting appropriate plants requires knowledge of what plants will survive and grow year after year in your region of the United States. Most plants are identified in a catalog or plant description by hardiness zone. Enter the garden’s zip code into the USDA Plant Hardiness Zone Map to find out the zone. The USDA Plant Hardiness Zone Map is drawn in the most detailed scale to date but individual gardens can have fine-scale climate variations known as microclimates. Your garden could be somewhat warmer or cooler than the surrounding area because it is sheltered or exposed. No hardiness zone map can take the place of the detailed knowledge that gardeners pick up about their own gardens through hands-on experience.

 

  • Build and Use Your Garden

Include the entire school community in the building and planting of the garden. Student participation will instill a sense of ownership, pride and responsibility. Use the garden as an opportunity to educate students about pollinators and to connect students to the source of their food . Plant easy to grow fruits and vegetables like lettuce, strawberries, peas, radishes, and watermelon.

 

Helpful Tip

Download and print this School Garden Checklist to help you get started!

 

 

Is your garden benefiting the community, incorporating sustainable practices, and a collaborative effort?

 

The People’s Garden School Pilot Project

In April of 2011, USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service announced the selection of Washington State University to implement the People’s Garden School Pilot Project to learn more about the impacts of school gardens on influencing healthier diet choices. The project known as Healthy Gardens, Healthy Youth was a nationwide research project conducted by Land-Grant University Extension programs in Arkansas, Iowa, New York, and Washington states. The pilot project included 47 elementary schools (grades 2-5) across four states with diverse climates and planting seasons, engaging low-income students in the physical activity involved in growing food, learning life skills, and teaching science and math through school gardens. The project built community around the gardens, allowing gardening to continue after project funds expired in 2013. To learn more about this project visit Healthy Gardens, Healthy Youth.

The impacts of this project continue today, nearly 3 years after its official completion. 

 

Downsville Central School in Downsville, New York

The school garden at Downsville Central School is a great example of providing food for the school and community! The cafeteria staff is using vegetables grown like garlic, potatoes, carrots, and beets in two of the raised beds for school lunches.

Teachers are working with a Girl Scout troop to plant, tend, and harvest the other raised beds. Girl Scouts are working to learn their Bronze Award through a service project by providing fresh produce to the Downsville Community Food Bank.

Daffodil Valley Elementary in Sumner, Washington

Daffodil Valley Elementary is a great example of how community makes a school garden successful! When it came time to build the garden the school formed a garden committee consisting of the school’s librarian, science teacher, after school program coordinator, a parent volunteer, the Sumner High School Agriculture and Future Farmers of America faculty and a Pierce County Master Gardener.

The committee decided the school would most benefit from a tilled, in-ground garden utilizing the rich soils of the Puyallup Valley, home to many berry and former bulb farms. The committee quickly got to work designing the garden, recruiting youth and community volunteers, and donations from local businesses. Within a few months the garden plot was tilled, a shed and green house were installed, and a fence was raised.