Gardens. They are popping up everywhere – on rooftops of urban apartment buildings, on empty city lots, and even on medians of boulevards and on those grassy areas between sidewalks and curbs.
According to Ron Finley, a Los Angeles resident who successfully petitioned the city council to grow gardens in some of these unusual places, “Growing your own food is like printing your own money.”
It’s not surprising, then, that many educators have latched onto the idea of school gardening, using green areas around the buildings for students to experience the fun and impact of growing food, as well as learning good gardening practices.
The Benefits of School Gardening
There are many school garden benefits. And educators should have these clear in their minds as they petition their school boards/boards of directors for student school gardens.
1. Children Learn
Biology is taught in many ways. But there is none better than actually participating in a study of life through the growth of plant life – it’s birth, maturation, and death. Other learning experiences relate to life skills – cooperation, teamwork, task delegation, problem-solving, etc.
2. School and Parent/Community Relationships
There are all sorts of possibilities for cooperation among different groups of community members. Senior citizens with gardening expertise can volunteer to help; local businesses can provide supplies.
Parents can help set up stands to sell produce or transport it to food banks for the needy. When such relationships are forged, there will be far more support for bonds.
3. Fosters Environmental Awareness
Students come to understand how necessary and valuable ecosystems are to all life and that their preservation is critical.
4. School Gardening Fosters Physical Health
Gardening gets kids outside, engaged in physical activity, and away from their screens.
5. Gardening Assists Mood Evenness
Physical activity, along with nurturing living things, can help to reduce anxiety and depression. And it helps to develop a sense of responsibility.
6. Children’s Diets Improve
Research shows that children who garden not only taste the veggies they grow, but also tend to eat more vegetables at home – always a good thing.
Once permission is granted for a garden, bringing it to fruition is more than just digging some holes and planting seeds. There is a lot of planning that must occur, and involving kids in that planning is part of the entire learning process.
Here are some essentials before taking your kids gardening.
How to Build a School Garden
1. Start With a Planning Committee
Involving parents, teachers, students, a volunteer from a local New York nursery, and seniors in this stage gets “buy-in” from everyone you want to involve. If the garden is going to support a food bank, then a representative from that organization should be invited to join as well.
Decisions must be made.
- Will the garden be in the ground or in raised beds?
- Where will the garden be, and what are hours of sunlight and shade?
- Based on placement, what can/will be grown?
- What are the budget parameters? Will the school district fund the school gardening project, or will there need to be fundraising efforts?
- Successful gardens must be designed. Here is where a nursery rep and other “experts” come in.
2. Set Goals for the Garden
Obviously, the most important goals are the academic learning and real-life experiences that a student garden provides for kids. Beyond that, there will be other goal decisions:
- To whom, and how will the harvest of fruits/veggies be distributed? Depending upon the size of the garden, it may be for students to take home, share with other classes, donate to charitable organizations, or sell as continued fund-raising for the garden itself. In fact, a large garden could support more than one of these goals.
- Will the garden be divided up among several classrooms/classes or a single class school gardening project?
- How often will the garden be tended, and who will do the scheduling and supervision of the student work?
- How much space will be needed for the garden? In most instances, this has already been decided during the petition and approval stage.
3. Advance Preparation
Here is where the experts come in. Or, students can become their own “experts” by researching soils, climates, etc., to select what will best be grown.
Analyzing Soil Samples
Soil samples can be analyzed at local universities or a full-service nursery. There may be important elements lacking, and these will have to be added to the soil. If there is too much of any element, then countering it with other minerals and such will be necessary.
Learning About Worms
Fertilization is always a factor, not just in the beginning but throughout the growing season. An extended learning activity that is fully eco-friendly is the key role that worms play in gardens.
They aerate soil; their poop is a natural fertilizer and pest control; and they are hearty little critters that reproduce often. Students can actually cultivate their own “worm farms” in plastic tubs. They love paper and garbage, both of which are plentiful in school environments.
Building a Compost Pile
While this may not be possible for the first year of your garden, students should begin to build a compost pile. This can be added to the garden in future years and will give the soil critical nutrients.
For the first year, compost can be purchased from a nursery. Adding a bit of peat moss is also helpful, but not too much. Peat moss is not as renewable as other sources, like manure.
Get to Know PH Levels
PH levels are important. Some plants like more acidic soil; others prefer a heavier alkaline environment. Have students research plant preferences.
The garden can be divided into sections and pH balances modified, and “like” plants can be grown together so make sure to know how to adjust the ph in your soil.
Tilling the Soil
Tilling the soil is the last step before planting. Soil is best tilled when it is dry, so there is no clumping in the process. It’s also easier to remove larger rocks. Of course, if your beds will be above ground, you will not have to worry about this step in the process.
You will have purchased or have received donated topsoil and other nutrients to achieve nice loose soil. An added point: worms are natural tillers of the soil, and using them can prevent the need for tilling in future seasons.
Check out our review on the best rototillers on the market.
Preparing Raised Beds
Preparing raised beds will take some thought and preparation too. If the bed is going to sit on top of the ground, there is no need for a bottom. But the ground underneath the bed should also be prepared to accept roots from larger plants and such veggies like carrots and potatoes.
If the raised bed sits on concrete, it must be much deeper – probably as high as 18 inches. And raised beds cannot be too wide, or children will not be able to tend them easily.
Here's our list on Best Soil for Raised Beds.
Ensuring Water Source
Ensure a water source. Rain is obviously the natural source of moisture but cannot be counted on. Most school buildings do have outside water spigots, but they may be far away. Be certain that you have enough garden hose to reach all areas of the garden.
4. Ready to Plant
Here is where the design factors come into play. We’ve already talked about pH levels and plant preferences and the need for sections if various veggies will be grown. But there are factors to consider as well:
- Monitor sun and shade on a sunny day. There may be parts of a large garden that get more sun or more shade. This should drive decisions about which plants will go where.
Greens and root vegetables, for example, will grow in shadier areas, but tomatoes, beans, and corn love full sun. Again, students should do this research as decisions are made about where plants should go.
- Seeds or bedding plants? There are advantages to both from a learning standpoint. A combination of seeds and bedding plants might be ideal.
Most people with gardens begin with bedding plants for some veggies, like tomatoes. Butternut squash and melons, on the other hand, grow rather quickly from seeds.
- Stakes will be important for some plants, especially tomatoes and beans. Put these in relatively early. Driving them in after a plant is maturing can damage some of the root systems.
5. Tending the Garden
Gardens that are not tended will not thrive. And students should be on a schedule of regular maintenance. All of these things must be done:
In most instances, you will know when a garden needs water if rain has been sparse, the soil looks dry, etc. And especially in raised beds, moisture must be monitored more often.
There are moisture meters that can provide this information too. Some plants like more water than others, so be certain that students know which areas need more or less.
Weeds can truly become invasive and “choke” out the healthy growth of plants. Students will need to be taught to identify what are weeds and what are sprouting plants. For large gardens, sections can be weeded on alternating days.
Using chemicals to kill or slow down weed growth should not be introduced. You want the gardening experience to be as eco-friendly and as natural as possible. And weeds that are pulled naturally can be added to the compost pile.
Many common veggie garden pests are four-legged – deer and rabbits are two of the most common. But there are many others too – caterpillars, snails and slugs, beetles of several arities, and aphids.
Again, natural remedies are the best, and there is plenty of information on the web that your students can find to identify these varmints and eliminate them. For example:
- Fencing and/or nets can keep out most of those four-legged pests, and netting works well for birds too.
- A few well-placed onion or garlic plants will ward off lots of pests. The odor is a big “turn off”.
- Crushed eggshells around the base of plants will prevent slugs and snails from climbing up your plants. They also hate caffeine, so spreading some coffee grounds around will help.
- Homemade soap and garlic sprays are especially helpful to ward off beetles and aphids.
As pests are identified, explore these natural remedies and see which will work best.
The most amazing part of the student garden is, of course, the joy and sense of accomplishment that kids get when they harvest their veggies. If the planning, design, planting and maintenance have been done right, that garden will be a phenomenal learning experience.
School Gardening for the Future
Who knows? You may just be “breeding” future horticulturists who ultimately decide to pursue such a career. In fact, for older elementary and middle school students, a good research project might be to look into the top schools of horticulture in the country.
There are some big-name schools on this list. And, if these students can continue their interest in horticulture and types of careers, they may very well be ordering admissions services help to apply and get into the top schools in the country.
Horticulture, in fact, is one course of study that will never be eliminated by technology – indeed, it incorporates all of the latest research and technology. There you have it, you are now set to start your school gardening.
Author’s bio. Jessica Fender is a professional writer and educational blogger. Jessica enjoys sharing her ideas to make writing and learning fun.