5 Steps To School Garden Success

Added on by Erin White.

post by Emily Auerbach

Here at Community Food Lab, we've been fortunate to be part of various school garden projects. Working with Powell Elementary School and the Durham Public School HUB Farm, we've helped create two very different school gardens - different in size, purpose, and start-up approach. In our piece for EducationNC, "Why School Gardens Are Important," we explored many aspects of these powerhouse educational tools.

We know that educators who want to build school garden programs often have few ideas on where to start. There are terrific resources out there for those who want to get started, like the amazing resource list and a more in-depth garden guide created by the Wake County-based Advocates for Health in Action. To complement those resources, and to help pull our own experiences into some simple advice, we’ve compiled a starting point how-to guide for enterprising educators who want to join the movement.

Read on for a step-by-step introduction to creating your very own school garden!  

1 People: Find your champions.

A great school garden program starts with a great team. Bring teachers, parents, administrators, and students on board with your dream. Form a Planning Committee with your champions. Your principal doesn’t have to be on your Planning Committee, but he/she should be included in the “plan” stage as much as possible.

2   Purpose: Identify the “why.”

School gardens can serve many functions, and as an advocate, it can be tempting to serve them all from day one. Pick your guiding principles from the get-go. Are you a food donation garden? A living classroom? A platform for nutrition education? Pick a purpose and stick to it- you’ll have plenty of time to branch out once the program is off the ground. Your purpose will guide your decisions in the “plan” and “program” steps.

Here are a few proven benefits of school gardens that you could pick as your purpose:

  1. Improve social skills and behavior
  2. Increase interest in eating fruits and vegetables
  3. Increase science achievement scores
  4. Improve nutrition knowledge

3   Plan: Dig in to the logistics.

It’s time to put your dream on paper. Pick a site, draw a plan, and get going. If you’re not sure where to start, click here to see example garden layouts by season. You want a site that has access to water and gets at least six hours of sun per day.

Once you have a plan, start thinking through the big questions:

  1. Who maintains the garden? Students? Parents? A staff member? School grounds staff?
  2. What is your garden calendar? Year-round or traditional?
  3. How will you keep the kids safe? What are your garden rules?
  4. Who can eat the produce?
  5. How will you store your tools?

Your principal should be the first person to sign off on your gorgeous garden plan. Then, go to your school’s Buildings & Grounds Committee if you have one. Depending on your county’s policies and what your plan looks like, you may need to submit a Facilities Modification Request to your county. (You don’t usually have to submit a Facilities Modification Request unless you’re building stationary beds or planting directly into the ground.)  Finally, make sure to test your soil if you’re planting directly in the ground.

4   Program: Build your curriculum.

A school garden needs programs and lesson plans to bring it to life. Happily, you’re not alone in wanting to provide hands-on learning for your children. Schools across the country have digitized their school garden lesson plans, and community groups such as the Master Gardeners can provide workshops upon request.

The Collective School Garden Network Lessons and Curricula database has hundreds of K-12 lesson plans available. For North Carolina-specific curricula, check out the Farm Bureau’s NC Ag in the Classroom website. Find a local Master Gardener network for your school here.   

5   Promote: Grow your network.

Now that you have your champions, know your “why,” understand the logistics, and have a program in place, it’s time to advocate for your vision. Apply for grants! Seek out in-kind donations! Organize a fundraiser! Bring your principal on board! A school garden requires all kinds of support, both monetary and non-monetary. Expand your circle of champions to include mentors, Master Gardeners, local business owners, and volunteers. These are the people who will bring your garden program to life.

Pro Tip: School garden advocates often stop short in the “promote” phase because the grant application process is intimidating. Remember that you have lots of options for funding the pilot phase of your program. In-kind donations from local businesses and PTA support can often get you where you need to be for your first step. If you do decide to apply for grants, GardenABCs has a great list of grant opportunities.

(6)  GROW.

You’ve put in the work. Now go build your garden!