Last October, all 500 kids at my children’s school were served a salad of veggies grown just on the other side of the cafeteria wall. And almost all of them — including my greens-phobic 2nd grader — went back for more. Everyone from Jamie Oliver to Michelle Obama is touting the positives of school gardening these days. The recipe for creating one is easy: Take a handful of committed volunteers. Add dirt, seeds, and water (and a little bit of sweat). Then watch it grow.
Here are five tips to help you get started:
Form a Garden Committee: Starting and sustaining a school garden is definitely not a one-person job. Get the word to the school community that you’re interested in forming a garden committee, and be sure to reach teachers and administrators as well as fellow parents. Once your committee is formed, create an online listserv such as a Yahoo! or Google group to set meeting times and facilitate communication among the members.
Reach Out to Teachers: A successful school garden should be integrated into the curriculum, so teacher buy-in is key. An involved teacher can serve as a liaison between the committee and the rest of the faculty and help develop ideas for enhancing classroom learning with gardening. At my children’s school, the 4th graders plant a Three Sisters Garden of corn, beans, and squash during their study of Native Americans, while the 1st grade explores plant anatomy by starting root vegetables in jars and later planting them in one of the outdoor beds. (If you’ve never tasted a homegrown potato, you don’t know what you’re missing!)
Put Together a Proposal: Whether you want to build 10 raised beds and a greenhouse or just plant some bulbs in the school’s tree pits, it’s a good idea to put your gardening ideas down on paper (or at least in a text document).
Some questions to think about while planning:
- Who will build the garden? Students? Parents? Both?
- Where will the garden be located?
- Will it be used by classes during the school day?
- Or will you begin with an after-school gardening club?
- What will you plant (think local and seasonal)?
- Who will care for the garden over the summer?
Type up a one-sheet that you can send around to the administration, faculty, and the PTA for sign off. You’ll need it later for outside fundraising and soliciting in-kind donations too.
Get Permission: Before planting or building anything on school grounds, you’ll need to get the OK from at least two people: the principal and the head custodian. (At my kids’ school, it took the former to get the latter!) Arrange a meeting, and kick it off by citing the proven benefits of school gardening for students, from hands-on, experiential learning in the natural and social sciences to math, language arts, and visual arts to health and nutrition. For information on recent school garden research, check out the educational benefits of school gardens and read about First Lady Michelle Obama's White House kitchen garden.
- Start Digging! If you live in most areas of the country, it’s a good idea to plan your garden build so it’s ready for planting by early spring. Students will have time to plant seeds and seedlings, tend to their crops, and reap the fruits of their labor (literally!) before the school year ends. Our school made building the beds and filling them with huge bags of donated soil a family Earth Day activity, but interested teachers may want to incorporate the planning and creation of the garden into their classroom curriculum. If you plan to serve anything grown in the garden at school, you’ll want to have the soil tested for PH balance and contaminants first.