At Organic Gardening, we've provided support and information to many school groups planning to start a garden, including six of our 2008 WaterWorks gardens. Along the way, we've learned a few strategies and tips that might be useful to you when starting a school garden.
Get support from both administration and staff. Enthusiastic parents can get administration approval to create a garden, but you need the teachers' commitment to using the garden and the maintenance staff's logistical support. Some will embrace the garden, but others are likely to see it as another demand on their busy days. Tell them about the project and its benefits to the school, then listen and respond to their concerns.
Provide a curriculum. Make it easy on the teachers to incorporate the garden into their lesson plans by giving them a curriculum. You can find project ideas and more from the National Gardening Association and the Edible Schoolyard Project.
Plan for the long term. Take the time when you start to think about what the garden will be like in five or even 10 years. As their children get older, parents cycle out of the school. Ask yourself, who will be responsible for the garden as the original group of supporters move on?
Start small. Plan for a few beds with room to expand, rather than trying to build the ultimate garden at first. This gives everyone involved time to "test drive" the garden and make sure it's manageable before it gets too big.
Build raised beds. Rather than removing the sod and tilling an area of school property, set up raised beds right on top of the grass, fill them with topsoil and compost, and then plant. This reduces the cost and effort needed to create the garden, allows the garden to expand as needed, and makes it possible to assign specific classes, grades or groups to particular beds they are responsible for.
Get help from local experts. Farmers, cooperative extension agents, nursery owners, garden club leaders and other experienced growers are usually glad to share their knowledge in the planning process and give lessons in the garden to students and staff.
Solicit donations. Ask at your local nurseries, garden centers, home stores, lumberyards and other places where you find supplies you need. Many are eager to contribute to the community and support schools. Offer to recognize their contribution with signs in the garden, in communications about the garden from the school, and with the local media. You'll be amazed at what you can get when you ask.
Consider timing. In the north, plant in spring for fall harvest. In the south, plant in fall for spring harvest. Don't grow a garden full of summer vegetables that are harvested when school is not in session.
Think about water. In many school gardens, the one resource that is hard to get where you need it is water. In your planning, take the time to figure out where you will get it from and how to bring it as close to the garden as possible. At Organic Gardening, we're advocates for harvesting rainwater.
Work out a maintenance plan. This can be the most challenging obstacle to sustaining a garden. Before you build, develop a thorough plan for keeping the garden well-tended-especially when school is out.
Make it fun. All work and no play makes a garden very dull and will not be inviting to the students or the staff.
Addition School Garden Resources
For more information about starting a garden at your neighborhood school: * edibleschoolyard.org * aggie-horticulture.tamu.edu/kinder/consid.html * aggie-horticulture.tamu.edu/kinder/steps.html * kidsgardening.com For more information on incorporating a garden program into your school's curriculum: * ecoliteracy.org (go to Rethinking School Lunch) * slowfoodusa.org (go to Education) * thelearninggarden.org