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How to start a school garden

Updated: Jul 19, 2023

Looking for a hands-on, inquiry-based project for your students that will help them develop valuable life skills and work habits? Look no further than your humble school garden. It's a no-nonsense, long-term project that can be as big or as small as you'd like it to be. A school garden can be so much more than just a fun way to learn about plants. It's an opportunity for your students to learn math, science, poetry, art, and business skills, with the added benefit of exposing them to food production systems and environmental issues. You might be thinking that this is a strange topic to be writing about with winter bearing down on us, but there's actually no better time to begin planning for a beautiful spring garden. What are you waiting for?

school garden community garden student gardening
Source - Midjourney

Introduction


It's no secret that I'm a gardening nerd. I've even considered it as a second career, but I wasn't always interested in it. When I started teaching, I had precisely zero interest in plants and no growing skills at all. Still, I wanted to teach kids about the environment and had access to an organic garden associated with my school. I used the opportunity to conduct science experiments on different growing methods with my grade 8 classes, and we monitored the results for several months.


To say it was a massive success would be a gross overstatement. A lot of our crops were eaten by monkeys (this was in India, just so you know), and the garden was not easy to access on a daily basis. Still, I saw the potential, and for sure some of my students did too. I later used the same garden to address the issue of food waste with my grade 12s, and I again saw the connections that could be made across the curriculum with direct benefits to the entire school community.


A few years later I moved to China and started several school gardens there, and since 2014 I've been in Japan where I manage a rooftop school garden above the gym. Along the way, I've learned a lot about gardening and about myself, and I hope many of my students have as well. You can do the same!

school garden harvest endive green pepper eggplant
A late summer harvest during our first week back to school in August

The benefits


Here are some things you can do with a school garden:

  1. Teach math skills (area, volume, geometry, data analysis, graphing).

  2. Teach science skills (plant growth and reproduction, soil chemistry, erosion, light, etc.)

  3. Teach art and English skills (there is plenty to paint, draw, and write about in the garden).

  4. Teach business skills (students can sell vegetables or other garden products to parents and teachers to fundraise for the garden or other school programs).

  5. Teach cooking skills (students can prepare meals using the things they harvest).

  6. Expose kids to environmental issues (climate change, food scarcity and waste, extreme weather, acid rain, overuse of fertilizers and pesticides, etc.)

  7. Supplement the school lunch or snack program.

  8. Show kids where their food comes from.

  9. Increase time spent outdoors.

  10. Make your school more attractive and more sustainable at the same time.

The above is far from an exhaustive list. Use your imagination and you can undoubtedly think of more ideas to add.


Getting started


The good news is that starting a school garden doesn't require a ton of money or training, unlike a lot of other school initiatives. It only requires that you have a bit of passion for the project and initial buy-in from your administrators. It's not quite free, though, and you'll need access to a few other things, too.

school garden tools and materials
Some of our school's garden supplies, built up over many years

Land


Finding a place to garden is probably the biggest issue you'll face when starting out. Sometimes there is a maintenance contract that includes gardening or some parts of the school that are off-limits (playgrounds, etc.). Even so, with a bit of negotiation, I think most school administrators would be happy to grant you access to a small patch of land in order to get started. Exactly how much land do you need? Well, that depends on your goals. I recommend that you start small (about 1 square meter per student), especially if you are new to gardening or if you are the only teacher that will be involved in maintaining it. It can be tempting to imagine all the possibilities of having a huge plot of land to work with, but the last thing you want is the burden of having to deal with such a space on top of your teaching demands. Plus, if you can't keep up with it, it will be a bit of an eyesore. For that reason, I also recommend a location that is a bit out of the way. You definitely don't want to be responsible for the path leading up to the main office, for example. Recruit other teachers (or parents) to spread the load, and put your kids in charge of watering and weeding by establishing a weekly maintenance and care schedule.

Water

Unless you live in a wet location that will get consistent rainfall once or twice a week, you'll need to have access to a hose or water supply of some kind. Years down the line, if you're feeling particularly ambitious, you might suggest installing a rainwater harvesting system or a pond, but let's not get ahead of ourselves. Right now you just need a place you can fill up some watering cans. If you can position your garden so that it makes use of your school's sprinkler system (assuming you have one), that will save you a ton of work throughout the growing season.

Waste

You'll need a place to put weeds, leaves, spoiled vegetables, and any other compost materials for use in the garden. I wrote a bit about composting ideas in a previous post, but for a school garden, you have access to a lot more material and may want to consider a larger 3-bin compost system. It's not hard to implement a schoolwide composting initiative, especially if you have a cafeteria and cooked lunches on-site. Food waste can be collected and turned into high-quality nutrients in no time. Similarly, leaves and cut grass from landscaping can be hugely beneficial to your compost pile, and they're free for the taking! Think carefully about how you will gather and transport compost materials to and from the garden.

compost bucket school garden
A very simple compost bucket we use to bring coffee grounds and lunch waste to the garden

Supplies


So far you probably haven't had to spend any money, but here's where you'll need a bit of coin to get up and running. On the plus side, the upkeep costs are very low once you have some initial tools and plants.

  • Some kids love playing in the dirt, and others don't. For this reason, you'll want some cheap cotton gloves. No need for anything fancy here. You may need different sizes depending on your students' ages.

  • A set of small shovels and spades for digging. I recommend getting all metal shovels as they are less likely to rot or break (kids are pretty hard on tools!). You probably only need 1-2 of these per 10 students.

  • Metal rake for preparing garden beds. You will use this to flatten and prepare soil, so don't get the flimsy kind designed for leaves. You need only 1-2 rakes in total for a small school garden.

  • A set of garden trowels, ideally a class set. This can get expensive, but I think it's worth splurging here if your budget allows for it. This is the tool your students will use the most, and cheap ones will bend or break in no time.

  • Sturdy buckets or a wheelbarrow for moving soil, weeds, and seedlings.

  • A hose or watering cans, for obvious reasons.

  • Seeds. I could write a whole series of blog posts just on seeds, but to keep it simple I will just recommend that you purchase open-pollinated or heirloom varieties that can be regrown without having to purchase new seeds each season.

It's worth searching for any or all of the above items used if you can, but keep in mind that it may be much more difficult to be reimbursed if you buy things second-hand.


What to grow and when


One of the initial mistakes I made when gardening with students was to plan my school garden the way I planned my home garden. Here in Japan, I have a big planting session in the spring (mid-March) and then again in the fall (early September). This works fine at home, but the spring crops mostly mature in the summer when students (and you, their teacher!) aren't likely to be around. It's also not that much fun for students to plant something and then wait around for 6 months or more until it's ready. For this reason, I suggest starting with something easy to grow that matures quickly.

mint growing in school rooftop garden
A healthy patch of mint growing in the school rooftop garden

Here are some vegetables that would be great to include in your school garden:

  • Carrots

  • Lettuce (and other greens)

  • Radishes

  • Beans (bush or pole)

  • Spring onions

  • Cucumbers

  • Potatoes

Here are some things I would avoid, either because they grow into the summer months or because they are too difficult:

  • Cabbage/broccoli

  • Watermelons

  • Pumpkins

  • Corn

  • Tomatoes

  • Zucchini

  • Celery

  • Peppers

  • Onions

  • Garlic

Note that some crops can only be grown in the spring or fall - not both! This is because certain plants use the changing day lengths to determine when they should flower and mature and growing them in the wrong season will end up giving you nothing in return for your hard work. Check the seed package or research online to find out when to plant and harvest in your area.


As mentioned above, you may want to purchase open-pollinated or heirloom seeds when growing with students. This will allow you to harvest the seeds and grow them again the following season. This is very easy to do with beans, radishes, cucumbers, and so on, but for some crops, it isn't practical. One benefit of saving seeds is that students can observe the complete life cycle of their plants over multiple seasons. It's great for learning about genetics, too!


Other things to grow


If vegetables aren't your thing, you can always grow flowers or herbs. Perennial varieties have the added benefit of staying alive year after year, but there will be less for your students to do and, more importantly, eat. Another possibility to consider is growing fruit like blueberries and strawberries. These are less work than you'd think and provide a tasty treat for your students, albeit only once a year. If your school is going to plant trees anyway, why not grow something edible like lemons, pears, apples, figs, plums, or mulberries? You can try growing them from seeds and then plant them as a class project. If the trees survive, it will be a wonderful legacy for your students to leave for future generations.

school garden sunflower ready to produce seeds
A sunflower, almost ready to produce seeds

Conclusion


I hope I've convinced you that starting a school garden is a worthwhile endeavor. If you're already a seasoned school garden facilitator - good for you! You're helping to inspire the next generation of gardeners and farmers, but even as a complete beginner, there are steps you can take to give your students the advantage of growing their own food. If a garden seems too ambitious, consider setting up a small growing area in a sunny part of your school or classroom. You can easily germinate sprouts and microgreens in a matter of days, and you can keep growing them year-round.


Overall, despite the extra work involved, I think you'll find that starting a school garden is an incredibly rewarding and enjoyable experience for you and your students. At the very least, you'll be giving your kids a bit of exercise and helping them develop useful life skills - two things that are badly needed by a lot of young people these days. Give it a try!


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