Starting a School Garden

Good nutrition is essential for learning, but many kids and teens don’t get enough healthy foods in their diet.

School gardens are a proven tool for reversing this trend. Students who garden get excited about tasting the fruits of their labors. They are more likely to get the recommended amount of fruits and vegetables each day, and they develop healthier attitudes about food, nutrition, and physical activity that can last a lifetime.

School gardens are experiential classrooms that engage students in a variety of subjects, from studying the water cycle in earth science to learning the origins of plant names in language arts to discovering hands-on how plants reproduce, grow, and interact with the environment in biology. Students can learn real-world math applications by measuring plots and charting growth rates. As they work with others and learn to care for living things, they develop important life skills like patience and responsibility.

Laying the Groundwork

A good starting point is to read up on school gardens and federal, state, and local health codes related to growing crops. If possible, talk to other educators who have successfully worked school gardens into their curriculums.

You’ll also need to build community support for a school garden. Talk to administrators about your idea and get approval for further exploration. Other people to include in the discussion are fellow teachers, and school facilities and food-service staff. You also may want to contact neighborhood associations, local civic organizations, garden clubs, master gardeners, or cooperative extensions for input and support.

Most important, get students and their parents talking about the garden. Students should be involved in every step of the process. Kids and teens who have a say become more invested in school gardens, take better care of them, and take the lessons more to heart.

Digging In

Hold brainstorming sessions to set goals for the garden. You may want to have a series of meetings — some just for students during school hours, and others for interested students, staff, parent-teacher group members, and other community members on an evening or weekend.

Ask participants to consider these questions:

  • What are the main reasons for having the garden? These might include providing food for snacks or meals, serving as a teaching tool, or giving students an outlet for physical activity.
  • How will the crops be used? Possible answers include “by the cafeteria staff,” “in classrooms,” “to raise money for the school,” or “donated to a food pantry.”
  • How can teachers use the garden in the curriculum? How can a garden help students understand certain subjects better? Encourage participants to think of applications for every school subject.
  • How will the garden be shared? Discuss which classes will participate in the garden and whether each should have its own assigned space, share space, or both. Discuss whether students will be allowed in the garden only during class time or also during recess and after school.

This is a good time to start thinking about management and care of the garden. The garden will need a coordinator (or coordinators) to oversee its use and keep an eye on maintenance needs. You’ll also want to decide who will be responsible for the garden during school breaks.

Some schools incorporate school gardens into summer learning and enrichment programs, while others have volunteers from the neighborhood or civic groups care for the garden.

Finding a Site

Successful school gardens have been established in courtyards, schoolyards, fields, and even in containers on rooftops or in windowsill planter boxes. To maximize their use and discourage vandalism, they should be close to the school building and visible from classrooms or neighboring residences. They also should get at least 6 hours of sunlight a day, be near a water source, and not be prone to flooding.

Before you commit to a site, it’s essential that a soil testing laboratory evaluate the soil at your prospective garden site for lead and other contaminants.

Designing and Planning

Hold more brainstorming sessions to come up with design ideas for the garden. Students can work in groups to draw their dream gardens, and these ideas can be incorporated into a final plan.

Get ideas flowing by asking participants to consider these design elements:

  • the number, size, shape, and locations of garden beds
  • types of plants: fruit trees, shrubs, vegetables, herbs, and/or flowering plants
  • paths for walking, wheelbarrows, and wheelchairs
  • raised garden beds for wheelchair users
  • storage for tools
  • fencing or other barriers to keep out animals and vandals
  • spots for holding classes, playing, and resting

With this input, a design team can develop garden plans that will meet the school’s needs. It often works best to start with a small garden than can expand over the years as more teachers learn to integrate it into curriculum and more students become committed to caring for it.

Use students’ researched suggestions (and the expertise of local master gardeners) to come up with a list of recommended plants for the site. These should include specific disease-resistant varieties that are easy to grow in your region. Make sure that any plants on the recommended list comply with your school’s policy on allergenic foods. (For example, some schools may prohibit peanut products.) Plants with poisonous parts or large thorns should be avoided.

Raising Funds

If the school budget doesn’t cover the costs of the garden, there are other places to look for funding: parent-teacher groups, local and national businesses, garden clubs, civic organizations, grants, and via special events like silent auctions or fundraising dinners.

You can ask students’ families to contribute extra garden supplies and tools from home. If garden produce will be used in the cafeteria, the food-service manager may be able to allocate part of the food budget for seeds or tools.

Breaking Ground

Now comes the moment everyone’s been waiting for: Breaking ground for your school garden! Involve parents and community members for more involved tasks like building raised beds or tilling, but leave plenty of important tasks for students. Giving them responsibilities — such as planting seeds and seedlings, measuring garden beds, and making signs — teaches them about the growing process and invests them in the future of the garden. Taking and sharing pictures and videos of the event can help promote your efforts.

Using the Garden in Lesson Plans

A school garden can be used to teach almost any subject, from science to art. Get your administration’s support in encouraging teachers of all subjects to integrate garden learning into their lesson plans.

National and regional school garden networks provide model lesson plans and curriculums, as does the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s People’s Garden Initiative. KidsHealth in the Classroom offers free lesson plans on nutrition and food safety, aligned to National Health Education Standards and based on expert-approved, age-appropriate articles and videos.

Keeping the Garden Alive

While students should share responsibility for tending plants, they will need the support of staff, parents, and community members to keep the garden healthy.

Establishing permanent garden committees and a garden coordinator can help ensure this happens by:

  • creating a schedule for garden maintenance and watering
  • coordinating volunteers to help in the garden
  • identifying resources for continued funding and future garden expansion

At the end of the first season, evaluate what worked and what didn’t. Survey teachers and students for their feedback, suggestions, and any changes they would like to see in the garden. Talk to teachers who didn’t use the garden and offer ideas for integrating the garden into their lesson plans.

Reviewed by: Mary L. Gavin, MD
Date reviewed: August 2014