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School Gardening

Last Modified: 08/21/2014

The questions and resources below are meant to help you explore the myriad considerations that arise when planning a school garden program. As you work through the prompts, you will be encouraged to think about how you want the gardens to be used; what types and how much food you hope to produce; where to locate the gardens; how to design the gardens; what tools and materials you'll need; how much funding and staff support the garden program will require; and what you'll do with the harvest.

School Gardening Questions to Consider

Note: These questions and resources focus on the logistics of establishing and maintaining a gardening program. See the education and curriculum topic for more on how to fully integrate gardens into academic programs. See the food safety topic for more on how to keep your garden environment, and harvest, safe.

Background and Progress to Date
"Through the collaboration of a few teachers, school nurse, and cafeteria staff, Paul Fly Elementary was able to build a thriving educational and edible garden. The students studied soil in science class and learned about composting. They were able to have the hands-on experience of turning over soil in the early spring and examining soil through magnifying glasses. Students tested the soil and components to determine if fertilizer needed to be added to encourage plant growth. They planted, watered, and weeded the garden. The students harvested arugula, radishes, cilantro, and basil. The cafeteria staff was able to make arugula salad garnished with fresh cut radishes for the students at lunch time"
Norristown Area School District, PA

What steps have already been taken to plan, create, or expand a garden program at your school or in your district? How many of your district's schools currently have gardens, and how many would like to have a garden?

Getting Buy-In

Are administrators, parents, food service and maintenance staff, teachers, and students invested in the idea of a new or expanded school gardening program? If not, how will you get their buy-in and the practical support you need from them?

For example: You might consider asking a neighboring district with a thriving garden program to offer a tour of their gardens and discuss the benefits.
Planning & Design
TIP! At the beginning, it may seem like there's an endless list of considerations that must be thought through before you even break ground on your first garden. Remember, though, that you can start small and grow your program year by year; this approach may even allow you to develop gardens that best suit the needs of your schools.
Goals and end uses

How many gardens would your program ideally support, and how large would they be? What is your timeline for installing these gardens?

TIP! If you haven't already, consider conducting an audit to determine which schools in your districts have gardens, which schools want them, when they want them, and how they'd like to use them.

What are your goals for your school gardening program? How will the gardens be used and by whom? How many students will learn or work in the gardens, and what are their grade levels? What topics do you want to teach in the garden, and what experiences do you want students to have? How much food are you hoping your gardens will produce?

TIP! End-use questions are essential to consider when deciding where to site and how to design gardens; everything else will flow out of the educational, food-production, and other goals you establish for your program.
Sizes and sites

Where will you situate any new gardens to ensure that they get adequate light and are close to water sources? Do the soil qualities differ across the school campuses? What other considerations will you take into account when choosing where to plant gardens?

For example: Some schools prioritize visibility to the community when choosing where to plant gardens. If neighbors, parents, and others can see school gardens from the street, they might be more likely to take an interest in them.
Layout, soil, and garden beds

What will your gardens look like? Will different gardens or different parts of one garden cater to different age groups or purposes?

Will you plant seeds or starts directly in the ground, use raised beds, or do some combination of both?

Will you use existing soil or bring soil in from elsewhere? How will you enrich your soil and keep it healthy? Do you plan to use compost, plant cover crops, add fertilizers?

Crops and livestock

How long is the growing season in your area, and what crops grow well in your soils and climate? Will you involve students in your decision about what crops to plant? Are there any special cultural foods or food traditions that you want to represent in your gardens? Do you plan to plant any fruit-bearing trees?

Which non-food crops will you raise?

For example: Many schools grow non-edible plants or flowers to deter pests, attract pollinators, or simply to make the garden colorful!

Will you raise any bees or animals as part of your gardening program?

Greenhouses, hoop houses, and other structures and spaces

Do you plan to incorporate greenhouses, hoop houses, or any other types of structures into your school gardens? If so, for what purpose?

What other considerations are important in the design of your garden? Will you have a special area for compost? How about a shady area for students to sit while they are participating in lessons or receiving garden training?

Supplies

What supplies will you need for seeding, planting, harvesting, and teaching in the gardens? Where will you store these items once you've obtained them?

TIP! Don't forget to think about what types of instructional tools (like magnifying glasses, clipboards, or butterfly nets) might be needed for your gardening program.
Funding

How much will it cost to maintain your school gardening program throughout the year (including staff time, tools, water, compost, etc.)? Where will this money or in-kind support come from?

For example: Some schools or districts ask for donations of seeds, tools, and other supplies from local nurseries, lumber yards, and home improvement stores. Others send wish lists home to parents asking for their donations of used tools, or even financial support.
TIP! Remember, you can use funds from the nonprofit school food service account to purchase supplies, including seeds, fertilizer, tools, etc for your gardens. If you sell produce, the benefits must accrue back to the nonprofit food service account.
Maintenance, Staffing, & Training

What sort of ongoing maintenance (such as weeding, watering, fertilizing, etc.) will the garden require, both during the school year and the summer? Who will be responsible for these duties? Will you organize regular garden workdays? Solicit the help of volunteers and parents?

What training will teachers, volunteers, students, maintenance stuff, and others need to keep the garden healthy, avoid injury, and ensure that the foods it produces are safe?

For example: Everyone working in the garden will probably need basic safety training. Those watering, harvesting or planting crops will probably need more in depth skills-based training.
Using Garden Produce

How much produce do you anticipate harvesting each season, and what do you intend to do with the harvest? Will you serve some of the garden produce through school cafeterias? Will you offer foods for students to sample right there in the garden or back at the classroom? Do you intend to sell any garden produce through, say, a farmers' market or a community supported agriculture program?

Resources: 
Getting Started

A Step-by-Step School Garden Guide

Grow NYC

A checklist for building community support, creating a shared vision, planning and designing the garden, securing materials and supplies, and keeping the garden growing.

Getting Started: A Guide for Creating School Gardens as Outdoor Classrooms

Center for Ecoliteracy

A comprehensive, step-by-step guide to starting a school garden, from selecting and preparing a site, to raising funds, to involving a diverse set of stakeholders.

School Garden Checklist

Let’s Move

A list of important considerations for starting a garden including site and plant selection, soil health, and design.

School Garden Q&As: Memo SP 32-2009

USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service

This memo clarifies, among other things, that funds from the nonprofit school food service account can be used to purchase seeds and other supplies for starting and maintaining school gardens.

Webinars, Videos, and Toolkits

Webinar: Design Ideas for a Fun, Successful Instructional School Garden

LifeLab and the National Farm to School Network

LifeLab Director John Fisher discusses the importance of good garden design and demonstrates many garden design concepts with more than 100 photographs.

Growing a Better School Lunch

Community Blueprint

An inspiring video documenting one of Minnesota’s largest school garden projects, which spans 3.5 acres. About 300 high school students tend a garden that provides fresh food to the school cafeteria, grow food for and operate a community supported agriculture program, and learn valuable lessons.

Resources for Creating and Sustaining School Gardens

California School Garden Network

Free handouts, videos, and other resources, including great information on planning, designing, prepping, seeding, and maintaining a garden.

Organizations

School Gardening Resources

KidsGardening

A project of the National Gardening Association

Articles, lesson and activity ideas, classroom projects, and how-to-guides.

The Edible Schoolyard Project

An organization dedicated to building and sharing edible education curricula supporting an online network and resource center, and offering professional development opportunities.

The USDA People’s Garden Initiative

A collaborative effort of more than 700 local and national organizations all working together to establish community and school gardens across the country.