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You've found the online School Garden Resource Center! Whether you're working to build a new school garden or support an existing one, this guide can help.
Click on any of the topics below or download the printable PDF version of this information.
Only 2% of children eat enough fresh fruits and vegetables, and the typical elementary student receives just 3.4 hours of nutrition education each year. School gardens can make a difference. Every seed planted sprouts a new opportunity for kids to learn about healthy choices and develop healthier eating habits.
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Whether you want to build a new garden or garner support for an existing garden at your school, you will need to be able to "make the case" to administrators, parents, teachers and potential supporters about why the garden is so important.
So, why should your school have a garden? Because what we feed our children, and what we teach them about food in school shapes how they learn, how they grow and how long they will live. And children today—in schools all across the nation—are in need.
School gardens programs not only promote healthy lifestyles in children, but have also been shown to improve children's behavior and performance at school and improve their attitudes about and appreciation for the environment. Gardens serve as great outdoor classrooms for any number of subjects, including science and ecology, math, creative writing and art. School gardens are wonderful spaces for kids with different learning styles and abilities to work in groups and engage in hands-on, cross-disciplinary education.
Cultivating strong relationships with stakeholders will ensure that your garden project receives consistent attention and support to help it thrive. Stakeholders are people or organizations that are in invested in and necessary to the success of the garden project.
Stakeholders in school garden projects include the school and school administration, teachers, facilities staff, parents, and members of the community where the school is located.
Meet with stakeholders by setting up meetings with the principal, put yourself on the agenda of a school staff meeting and the Parent-Teacher Organization meeting—and come prepared. Bring to the meetings a vision for the future—a plan for your next year in the garden and how you hope the project can grow—and offer your stakeholders real ways to be a part of that vision.
Hear from teachers about how you can work together to plan curriculum in the garden, ask parents and administration about their interest in a summer garden camp or afterschool program, or work with your principal and facilities staff to help improve your access to water. Your stakeholders are a support system for your garden—remember to keep them informed! Also, see sections Build Community Partnerships and Spread the Word.
Community support and involvement will be key to your garden's success. That's why a well-rounded Planning Committee should be the driving and sustaining force behind your garden. The Planning Committee should play a central role in establishing the garden, organizing events, fundraising, and planning for the garden's future.
Get committee members invested and on the same page by having discussions early on about the Mission and Goals for the garden, and keep them engaged with a regular meeting schedule and fun events. Build a structure to support your committee members in their work—remember that they're volunteering their time!
Every Planning Committee will look different depending on the needs and vision of your garden project. Committee members should be representatives from your various stakeholder groups who are committed to the garden.
Be careful of making your committee so large that it has difficulty making decisions effectively—while 6 or 7 people may be able to have very engaging and proactive discussions, gaining consensus can become more difficult as the number increases.
Having clearly defined goals for your garden is crucial in helping your project run smoothly. It helps to ensure that those involved are on the same page, allows you to sell the vision of your project to important stakeholders, can help in engaging visitors and recruiting volunteers, and keeps you on track with your growth and development.
Some gardens find it helpful to have a broad mission statement with a more specific list of goals attached. For example, a mission statement might be as follows:
"Our school garden's mission is to improve the health and well-being of students, families, and the larger community."
When you've defined the mission and goals for your project, you can begin to design the physical space to best meet the needs of those goals. Most of your garden will be used for planting, but there are many other physical attributes that help to make a successful school garden. Consider your design as more than just a bird's-eye view—what will your garden look like from a distance? How will it respond to a large crowd? Some things to consider when planning your garden:
People of all ages and physical characteristics will visit and use your garden. Make sure that pathways and signage are clear and provide a shady spot for resting or eating lunch for your many visitors.
Where will you keep your tools, seeds, or curriculum materials? Inside the school, in weatherproof storage, or in an outdoor shed?
Compost is a vital part of the garden cycle and an incredible teaching tool. Many types of compost systems are available, but a three-tier system is most popular for school gardens and allows for a wonderful visualization of the decomposition process.
Be sure your compost piles are accessible with a wheelbarrow and in a corner of the garden where the smell of decomposition will not deter any wary visitors.
A space to gather and provide orientation to classes, volunteers, or tour groups before they head into the garden. The meeting area is a good space to share the school garden rules and behavior expectations
Depending on your area, your garden may be in danger of damage by animals or vandalism. Some sort of fence that still allows for visibility may be helpful, and can also help to let visiting students understand the physical boundaries of the space.
Do you dream of a small greenhouse? Cold frames? Chickens? Fruit trees? A brick oven? Keep these hopes in mind as you plan out your space—a successful garden project can grow quite quickly!
Every garden project will have a different design based on its specific location and mission. If you have the time, go with your planning committee to visit other gardens nearby and get a feel for different layouts. Check out the links at the bottom of this page for more advice on garden design, or work with the following sites to plan out your design online:
One of the continuing jobs for the planning committee will be to find funding and secure resources for the work of the garden. Funding can come from a variety of sources including grants, produce sales, and donations. If you are a 501 (c) 3 or are connected to a school, you are eligible to receive grants. Search these websites for funding opportunities that many school gardens are eligible for, and search for local Green Space Development grants or Child Health and Nutrition Grants:
Doing a quick search online can also yield incredible resources to help the work of your garden. These can be found in the form of lesson plans, planting guides for your area, community partnerships, and more. See our Helpful Links page for links to helpful sites, and seek out your local Agricultural Extension service, Horticultural Society, or community garden for more local information.
Schools are the perfect place to create garden-based learning environments because so many students, parents, teachers, and others make up the school community. At the same time, the particular names and faces of those involved in a school and its garden spaces may change over time.
For that reason, school gardens can benefit from partnering with an organization or business from the community that will help to bring long-term sustainability to the initiative—a "community partner." A community partner can be any organization that will work with and help support the garden for years to come, including:
Whether you're gardening in containers, raised beds, or directly in the ground, you'll want to be sure your soil is well prepared before you plant. Use the results of your soil test to decide which amendments you want to add, and use your own compost or find a local bulk seller.
There are many decisions that go into bed preparation—how much compost to add, how deep to break up the soil, whether to turn the soil by hand or use a tiller, whether to build permanent or temporary raised beds. Each depends on your soil, climate, and personal approach. For a nice overview of the different approaches to school garden beds, begin with the Collective School Gardening Network's downloadable publication, "Gardens for Learning."
Master gardeners in your community can be excellent resources for advice on preparing and planting your garden. Trained in horticulture by the USDA's Cooperative Extension, master gardeners volunteer their time to help those in their community plant, grow, and harvest fresh produce from gardens. Master gardeners volunteer in all 50 states and the District of Columbia and can be located through their state programs on the national Extension website.
When your beds are ready, you'll need seeds to plant. You can pick up seeds at a local garden store, but you may learn more about the plants and even get a better deal if you order through a seed catalog. There are many wonderful seed companies all over the U.S. Most will send you a catalog for free, and some will even donate seed packets to school garden projects.
Finally, you'll need to purchase tools for your work. Keep in mind the size of school groups that will be visiting your garden, and that you want to have enough tools to keep everyone involved. You may also want to buy some wire brushes for cleaning tools to prevent rust, or institute some other daily tool-cleaning activity that will remind students about proper care for their belongings.
The specifics of your growing process will depend on your area and on the specific needs of your plants. Search the USDA Plant Hardiness Zone Map to learn which plants will thrive in your part of the country.
Once you know your zone, take some time to research the different varieties you'll be growing and what each plant needs. To get started, check out Cornell University's Vegetable Growing Guides for information on the different needs of common vegetables.
But remember, even different varieties of the same vegetable may have specific needs, so consult your seed catalogs and do online research to discover how best to help your plants succeed. And don't forget to check with your local Extension program for growing tips from master gardeners in your community.
If you find that your plants are struggling, consult these websites for more information on pest and disease management and how you can take proactive steps to help your garden:
A school garden is suited to support a full range of curriculum subjects and educational experiences, and here are a few ideas to get you started. Remember to connect with teachers to plan appropriate garden activities, and visit the links at the bottom of this page for further ideas and lesson plans that meet state standards.
The curriculum contains 35 lesson plans with activities to engage your students in a fun and educational exploration of fruits, vegetables and healthy eating.
The lessons are cross-curricular and support curriculum for Pre-K-5th grade. A variety of activities are included so you can pick and choose the learning objectives that are appropriate for your students. A garden is a great resource to use when teaching students about healthy eating and agriculture. Even if you don’t have an in ground garden, you can still complete the activities in this guide with your students. If this is your first time gardening with students, we recommend that you start small. Be sure to establish clear guidelines and safety procedures with your students so that everyone can have a positive learning experience.
Volunteers and community members can bring incredible knowledge and energy to your project. Below are some ideas to help you connect with people who are interested in volunteering and support them in their work. Remember to recruit, support and recognize volunteers for their hard work.
One of garden coordinator's most important duties is to ensure that the garden a safe space for all. To maintain the safety of your garden and your activities:
Record everything! From the hard data of where, what, and how much you planted to the personal impressions you had about running a particular lesson plan. Things will move very quickly in your garden, and you'll be glad to have records to review later. Records are also important tools to use for funding applications and in presentations to stakeholders.
Here are a few printable sample record-keeping forms. If you prefer to save your records on your computer with a program such as Excel, make sure to back up your files!
Now that your project is up and running, let everyone know! Reaching out to families and community members will help to bring in new faces, and it can offer wonderful opportunities for students to reflect and share their experiences. Here are some ways to share your story:
Your garden can very easily gain support from local residents and benefit the well being of your larger community if you hold public events and welcome visitors. Students can become tour guides and can share their knowledge with the public, helping them to also feel invested in and supportive of the space. Don't forget to invite local farmers, local government officials, and community partners! Here are some ideas for events that the public might enjoy:
There is a wealth of information online for those working with gardens. Take a moment to check out some of these wonderful websites where you can find more helpful advice, plant information, lesson plans, success stories, and inspiration for your own projects.