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.
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.