Recipe for a successful school garden

So, you want to start a school garden?

High fives all around! School gardens are an important step in engaging students to understand and appreciate agriculture, an industry that grows, processes, and delivers safe, abundant food to us every day. Above that, school gardens are an excellent teaching tool to deepen core subject material in a hands-on way, encourage healthy food choices, connect kids to nature and ecology, as well as build teamwork, social skills and community engagement.

But, what does it take to grow good food at your school?

Often, it’s more than just building garden beds and planting seeds. A school garden is a significant project for your school, which can bear many fruits of learning and engagement, with a little elbow grease. Before you begin, ensure that you establish buy-in from your school community and consider an implementation plan, maintenance plan and needed funding or materials for your project.

To help you plan for garden sustainability, we’ve compiled our recipe for a successful school garden.

Ingredients:
  • A committed school garden committee
  • A clear set of goals
  • A garden site plan
  • Physical materials (or support for those materials)
  • A maintenance plan & clear responsibility
  • Helpful neighbours
Step 1: Gather Your Team

Though the idea of starting a school garden often starts with one person, it is far from a one-person job! Try planting the seed for a school garden with fellow teachers or parents at your school. Approach your principal or school administrator with your idea. If you face resistance, you might hold an informal meeting to establish some goals, vision and plan. If needed, compose a short proposal about the needed resources and benefits for your school garden. Building the proposal will help you to consider all aspects of planning and identify what support and resources you will need. You will likely find community-based organizations or groups in your area that are willing to help with valuable resources or find community members willing to volunteer some of their expertise. Gathering a team committed to school garden success is an important first step, including building engagement from your school administrators.

Step 2: Ask for Help

Fundraising can be an important step for your garden, not only for raising the resources or materials needed for your garden, but as a great way to build enthusiasm and increase buy-in (literally!) for your project. Think about community fundraising, garden grants, online fundraising tools, such as crowdfunding or social media. Approach local garden supply stores or greenhouses and let them know about your project. Include your plan in your school or community newsletter. Sometimes help comes from unexpected places, so get the word out about your project!

Step 3: Visit successful school gardens

Learn from your peers! Are there successful school gardens in your community that you can visit, and talk to the team involved? What advice do they have for you? What was their journey of implementation? There is a lot to learn from the projects that have come before you!

Step 4: Get Clear on Your Goals & Connect to Curriculum

As soon as you start the planning process, get clear on your goals. Why do you want to start a school garden? What will this add to your school community? Ensure that you have a plan to connect your garden to curriculum, as this will ensure that the garden is utilized as a key learning environment, and not just an add-on or after-thought. Integrate your school garden into your school life and learning in as many ways as you can.

Step 5: Determine Responsibilities

Outline the roles and responsibilities of the individuals involved in the garden project. You might start by identifying the roles needed, and then work to fit the skills and interests of those involved to the needed responsibilities. Create a written document of these roles and responsibilities and be explicit about needed commitment. It might be useful to consider month-by-month responsibilities of the garden. Ensure someone is keeping everyone accountable to their commitments and managing the projects implementation.

Step 6: Determine Your Site and Plan the Physical Garden

The physical plan of your garden will be affected by your purpose and goals for the project. There are countless garden designs from which you can choose, depending on how permanent your garden site is, how frequently it will be utilized, whether shade is needed or fencing or what you plan to grow. There are several resources available to help you plan your garden, and this would be a great time to reach out to your local area extension office or Master Gardeners guild/organization for assistance.

Here are some helpful resources: A Guide to Growing School Gardens In Alberta, Community Garden Toolkit by Food Banks Canada, Setting up and Running a School Garden by FAO of the UN, Learning Gardens by Nutrients for Life.

Step 7: Organize materials and BUILD!

The day of your garden build can be a great day to engage community members and share the experience with the entire school. Can you host the garden building party along with a BBQ or celebration? How can you get students and parents excited about the garden? Have your materials on hand in advance, know the roles of your key volunteers and have your work plan together. Think of jobs that several people can do, such as wheelbarrowing dirt or laying pathway stones. Try to get as many hands involved with the build as you can!

Step 8: Make a maintenance Plan & Budget

Often people are eager to jump in a help during building, planting and harvesting, but daily maintenance in an important part of your garden success. Create a water and weeding schedule for that you might assign to each classroom weekly. Can you invest in drip irrigation and put your garden on a timer? What supplies will you need throughout the season and year-to-year and who will keep track of your garden finances. Ensure that you take the maintenance of your garden into account after the buzz of the build has worn down!

Step 9: Make Friends with Neighbours!

Summer vacation is an enormous challenge to the success of school gardens. Can you make friends with your school neighbours, master gardeners association, community association or local community garden for help during the summer vacation? Much of the produce can be harvested during the summer months while students are away a from school. This promise of extra vegetables could be an incentive for local community members to help with garden maintenance. Can you advertise for a volunteer community garden helper in your local community association newsletter and on social media? Can you assign a group of parents and students to help for a different week throughout the summer? Many school gardens have chosen to combine their school garden with an on-site community garden. This way, community gardeners will help to tend the school garden while they are tending to their own community garden plot. Is this arrangement possible with your school? Not only are community gardeners an extra set of hands and help, they are often full of expertise to help you navigate the ups and downs of gardening!

Starting a school garden can seem like a daunting task, but the rewards are great! Don’t get overly bogged down in the details – remember to enjoy the adventure along the way. Gardens are full of wonder, joy, surprise and challenge for students and adults alike, and an exceptional way to make learning come alive at your school. Happy growing!

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