Numerous excellent school garden programs have sprouted up across the country. School gardens often provide food that improves a child’s diet and nutrition, areas for learning, places for pleasure and recreation, as well as 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 upon its geographic location, funding, grade level involvement, size, type and purpose. For anyone looking to begin a gardening program at a school, here are some tips to consider before you get growing:
1. Evaluate Your Available Space
Who is your garden serving? What are the needs? What kinds of space are available? Parking lots, courtyards, rooftops, greenhouses and school yards all can be potential sites. Also consider options within the community like city parks, vacant lots, places of worship, nature centers, retirement homes or community gardens.
To help determine the best uses for the space available, you should consider:
- 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?
2. 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. USDA’s People’s Garden website has a collection of gardening resources to help you start and sustain a People’s Garden. You also 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 summer.
3. Check the Health of Your Soil
Healthy soil is essential for a successful school garden. It is 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 might be to garden in raised beds or a mobile garden planter.
4. 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.
5. Selecting Plants
Choose a palette of plants that are safe, low maintenance, desirable in size and form, and suitable to your climate (also referred to as your Plant Hardiness Zone). 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.
6. Build and Use Your Garden
Include the entire school community in the building and planting of the garden – get their hands in the soil every step of the way. Their participation will instill a sense of ownership, pride and responsibility among students. Use the garden to connect students to the source of their food. Plant herbs, fruits and vegetables that are easy to grow, pick and cook such as, lettuce, peas, radishes and carrots.
Let’s Move and USDA’s People’s Garden Initiative developed this School Garden Checklist just for you! We hope it will be helpful when you begin a school garden program. Did you know? 164 schools across the country are growing People’s Garden. You can join the movement and register a new or existing school garden as a People’s Garden on the People’s Garden website.