When children taste fresh healthy food from the garden, their preferences tend to change for the better, and this change often extends to their families and their consumption choices as well. Learning to love fresh fruits and veggies can have positive long-term effects on children’s health.
Gardening also provides natural lessons in the role of water and energy cycles, differences in individual species, the importance of caring for our environment and understanding the food chain. Especially for middle and high school students, school gardens can support classroom learning and make complex subjects like plant sciences, nutrition, communication, visual arts, marketing and business, easier to demonstrate and understand.
School gardens provide the perfect environment for learning about the natural cycles of plants and the forces that impact their growth. They show us the beauty and power of nature to connect with ourselves and each other.
When children learn about their environment and the impacts and changes that result from human activity, they often make better lifestyle and nutrition choices. Outdoor activities contribute to exercise and weight loss, by replacing sedentary activities with movement and exertion.
Giving children food-growing knowledge of contributes to their overall sense of well-being and feeling of control over their lives. Caring for plants and connecting with the natural environment helps students develop a sense of ownership and responsibility.
Anecdotal evidence suggests that students with learning difficulties often learn better through focused physical outdoor activities like gardening. Participating in school gardening improves social skills, improves participation and cooperation, and fosters parental involvement.
Extra food (and flowers!) can be grown for school lunches, food banks, nursing homes and hospitals, homeless shelters, harvest dinners, gift baskets or take-home treats for volunteer recognition or other special events or needs identified by the group.
In addition to being a source of pride for the school and the community, gardens can provide other important benefits. School gardens are often created in partnership with UC Extensions/Master Gardeners, gardening clubs, 4H clubs and other local organizations or agencies.
Gardening engages students and helps them learn in a way that’s different than classroom learning. Lessons in history, about the land, people and traditions, can be conveyed through gardening activities if conducted in a way that brings these concepts to life.
When given a chance to experience the joy of nurturing a plant from seedling to harvest, children’s self-esteem naturally grows, as they begin to reap the fruits of their labor.
Developing and maintaining school gardens often involves help from parents and caregivers, giving family members quality time to spend together on healthy, productive activities, without the distraction of electronic devices or other diversions. Working in the garden exposes children to the stunning visual art of nature, while also providing them with time for quiet introspection, in harmony with Mother Nature.
School gardening provides hands-on learning experiences in many subjects, such as natural and social sciences, math, visual arts and nutrition. Teachers can provide interesting garden-based learning activities and involve students in every stage of planning and maintaining a garden, passing on valuable information about cultural diversity, history and traditions from the local community and around the world.
How does a school garden work?
School gardening provides hands-on learning experiences in many subjects, such as natural and social sciences, math, visual arts and nutrition. They take a lot of planning and preparation, regular maintenance and ongoing financial support. Depending on the space available, the vision and approval of the school administration, the willingness of the teachers and students to do the work of fundraising and starting and maintaining a garden, a school garden can serve many different needs. Gardens can have a specific theme or a unique layout and purpose, depending on the needs and vision identified by the school and the participants.
Tips for getting started – First and foremost, you need a good plan for starting a school garden. Developing a broad base of interest and supporters will help ensure your success. Determine potential locations, what approvals you’ll need, how you plan to raise funds and seek donations (for your initial investment in garden tools and materials and for annual maintenance and new plant costs), how you’ll recruit volunteers and sponsors, form an advisory or planning committee, collectively determine the purpose of the garden and who it will serve, and decide who will plant and maintain it, and you’re on your way!
The Basic Foundation of Your Garden: Good Planning
- First, think through these basic questions: Why you want to start a garden, who the garden will serve, what needs will the garden fill, where the garden might be located and when is the best time to start planting a school garden in your area.
- Develop a brief, clearly outlined, straightforward proposal describing the school garden program you envision, to get others on board with your idea. Here are some questions to consider:
- Who will use the garden and what are the primary purposes for the garden? What activities, besides gardening, will take place in the garden? This will help you define your goals and objectives and decide how you’ll involve students in the project.
- Will you have a theme for your garden? This will help you decide what types of fruits, vegetables or flowers to plant. Do you want to plant a spring garden you can harvest by June or should you include fall crops like pumpkins and squash that require minimal summer maintenance?
- Who will maintain the garden during the school year and over the summer? (watering, weeding, etc.)
- Determine insurance requirements
- Draft a detailed budget
- Scout and assess available locations for your school garden. What are your space requirements and other considerations? Is an adequate site available? Consider proximity to school and classrooms, storage space for equipment and materials, and whether the location is safe from theft and vandalism.
Community Awareness and Group Acceptance
You’ll need to gauge (participants and administrators) interest in an outdoor program and show a demonstrated interest to get your idea for a school garden “off the ground”.
Look for partners in planning and implementing your school garden. Partnerships can strengthen your program (PTA’s or other parent, teacher or student groups, historical societies, museums, 4H clubs, university landscape architecture students, Master Gardeners, local garden clubs, local businesses, chambers or service organizations are some of the many potential partners you might consider).
Look for interested, committed people with the right skills to make your dream a reality. You’ll need a dedicated and focused core group to serve as your planning and advisory committee and people you can count on at each phase of the project. It’s best to form subcommittees, so you don’t have to cover every aspect of the project at long meetings. Be clear about what is expected, before the project begins, and make sure that everyone agrees on their role(s). Have sign-up sheets available at school meetings and events.
Decide who will carry out the ideas and who will provide leadership. Roles should be clearly defined; matching the right people to the right task is important for individual participant and overall project success.
Decide who will approve the ideas (including initial approval from school administration and a process for ongoing decisions by participants and/or administration). Meet with the principal, the faculty, the school board, and the groundskeeper. Keep the lines of communication open and keep everyone in the loop. It’s important to generate administrative support for outdoor learning.
Fundraising: Be Specific and Don’t Take it Personally
Figure out your fundraising plan, how much you’ll need and who will be responsible for raising money (both initially and for maintenance, including new plants each year). Seek a broad base of community and school support. Solicit donations of cash and in-kind donations of services and materials; look for grants, gifts and matching gift programs. Hold bake sales, car washes or other community-supported events to raise funds for your garden. It takes money to create and maintain a productive school garden.
Tip: Create a folder for fundraising (with project and contact information), to leave with local business owners and groups, to make your planning look more professional and well organized.
Your Garden Layout and Supplies
Gardens for children should be designed to match their small size, including raised beds no more than 3 feet wide and benches and garden tools that are kid-sized. Make sure the ends of the beds are blunted, to avoid injury and don’t forget to include some places for quiet time and communing with nature. Consider incorporating brightly colored structures (perhaps made by the students), beanpole teepees, tree stumps, arches or pergolas to add interest to the garden and pique children’s interest. Children love color and interesting surfaces, wide uncluttered paths and plants that are easy to reach.
Determine who will design and approve the garden layout. Consider alternative layouts like a wheel design with open space in the middle for picnic tables or other layouts that help create a sense of community. Involving students in the design process puts their imaginations to work.
Once you determine your garden site, you’ll need to figure out how to clear the site of any debris, prep the soil (well-drained soil free of heavy metals, like lead) and prepare your seedlings for planting. Consider whether you’ll need fencing, lighting, irrigation, or other site improvements. Make a detailed list of supplies you’ll need, like fertilizer, mulch, row markers, etc. Consider carefully the materials you’ll be using (for safety, durability and cost). Figure out where to get your tools, equipment and materials (including compost and other planting materials) and where to store them.
Garden Management: Walk Softly and Carry a Big Stick!
- Decide how you’ll manage volunteers and how you’ll recognize their contributions.
- Orient and train volunteers in specific skills and make sure they have the right attitude. Don’t be afraid to evaluate performance and offer supportive and useful feedback.
- Everyone involved should have realistic expectations and responsibilities. (P.S. Don’t forget to provide frequent refreshments and recognition for your hard-working volunteers! They’re the backbone of your operation.)
Determine how you’ll evaluate your effectiveness, in the beginning stages and throughout the program
- Develop a garden maintenance plan. Who will maintain the garden in summer? (Make sure the school groundskeeper is on board with your plan) Who will repair things in the garden?
- Consider an “adoption plan” for the garden that involves the use of a master calendar where individuals and families can sign up to take care of the garden for a specific time period (days or weeks). Frequent care is more manageable than letting everything pile up.
Preparing Your Garden for the Fun Ahead!
- Try to avoid “no’s” in the garden (i.e., No picking flowers, no playing in the water, no walking on the mulch, etc.) and plan for playful, interactive, multi-sensory age-appropriate activities.
- Get people “psyched up” about the garden! Use newspaper articles, local TV coverage, personal invitations to local groups or a harvest dinner, to help spread the word and share your excitement with the community.
- Once you break ground and put in your raised beds or plot your growing areas, invite participants into the garden and get to planting!
- Explore Best Practices for pest management and gardening and consult frequently with people with the knowledge you need to make your garden successful.
Register your garden with the Edible Schoolyard Project
The mission of the Edible Schoolyard Project is to “build and share national edible education curriculum for pre-kindergarten through high school” and they “envision gardens and kitchens as interactive classrooms for all academic subjects and a free, nutritious, organic lunch for every student”. By starting a school garden and registering it with the project, you’ll join a network of educators around the world, sharing information and a wealth of resources for edible education.
The UC Master Gardeners of Napa County have been offering advice and information on a variety of topics related to best practices in pest management, agriculture, horticulture and much more, for the past twenty years. In addition to celebrating their 20 year anniversary, they’ve also formed a School Garden Task Force that provides outreach to share gardening expertise with parents, teachers and community members, by offering demonstrations for school staff, resources for curriculum-based garden activities and school garden specific events throughout the year.
Local businesses, organizations and individuals that will support school garden development:
Mid-City Nursery – American Canyon
Van Winden’s – Napa
DJ’s Growing Place – Napa
Cottage Garden Nursery – St. Helena
Supplies and tools:
Orchard Supply Hardware
Napa Recycling – Will donate compost, when available, but they do not provide delivery.
When it comes to figuring out how to fund your school garden, there are a variety of resources available to make it a little easier. Try to estimate your needs as accurately as possible. Your budget should include line items for site development or improvement, operating expenses, and curriculum development, in addition to supplies and materials. Once you’ve got your garden team assembled and a plan in place that includes your planning and design goals, and a detailed list of supplies and materials, The California School Garden Network has resources to help you locate grant sources, put a budget together, set goals, and even locate garden supplies. KidsGardening.org also offers tons of resources for locating and applying for grants. LifeLab.org has a school gardens resource page that also offers a wealth of information on finding funding for your school garden.
Donors and supporters are more likely to support your project if they understand your goals and plans and what you need from them (money, time, materials or services). It’s a good idea to put together a simple folder with your project and contact information, to share or leave with potential sponsors. It’s helpful to include a letter of endorsement from the school and a list of people who support the project, in addition to a brief description of your project and a copy of your garden layout plan. Start with parents, who should be your strongest supporters, and ask for their help in identifying potential donors by matching your needs with the goods and services they offer. Before you ask for a donation, figure out how you’ll acknowledge your donors and supporters and make sure to recognize donations of any size. Be specific about what you need when you solicit donations, so you don’t end up with things you don’t need. Be enthusiastic! Let your passion show and people are more likely to respond positively. Even if someone doesn’t get on board the first time, they may offer support in the future, so always treat everyone with kindness and respect.