Although a school garden can be, and often is, the result of very hard work by one or two people, it is not likely to last or be fully used without broad support from the school community. The first job of someone wishing to start a garden is to gather allies.
Forming a Garden Committee is very helpful. Ideally it would have on it the principal, the garden coordinator, teachers, and parent volunteers. A Garden Committee only needs to meet a couple of times a year, but doing some planning in fall or late summer is crucial.
A meeting with the school’s parent-teacher group should be set up in order to ask for funding and to publicize the garden effort. Also, be sure to get to know the school custodian. The custodian is usually the most knowledgeable person on campus about such things as tool storage, existing plants, and water and electricity access. However, the custodian often does not have time or the responsibility to help directly with the garden.
Would your school consider hiring a garden coordinator and/or garden teacher? Most successful school garden programs have found that having a paid person to coordinate garden time with the school staff and volunteers prevents volunteer and teacher burnout and provides consistency to the program.
To make it easier to involve every class in the garden, teachers can ask parents to be class garden volunteers. These volunteers can be provided with curriculum and help take the class out to the garden on a regular schedule.
It’s useful in the early phases of starting a garden to develop clear goals and objectives for the program. What does your school want from the garden and how will it be used? Put the goals in writing. Once this planning work is done the plan provides a guide for future decisions and can be a starting point for writing grant proposals or asking for in-kind donations.
A school garden is a work in progress. It can grow over the years as people and resources become available. Don’t be discouraged if you need to start small!
Finding a space
The most important feature of a new garden site is how much sun it gets. Although wonderful gardens using shade plants can be created in places with very little light, many plants will not thrive in shade. This is especially true of fruit trees and vegetables, which need plenty of sun.
Soil type varies widely in Sonoma County, but any soil can be improved for gardening by adding compost. Clay can be lightened with compost, and sandy soil can be improved to hold more water. If you’re planning to grow food plants, make sure that the new garden site soil doesn’t have pollutants in it from past dumping of toxic materials.
Water should be easily available and an automatic irrigation system needs electricity. A common cause of garden failure is that the garden takes too much time to water, especially in the summer. An automated irrigation system will free up volunteer time for other things. If an automatic system isn’t possible, a well-planned drip system is the next best thing. It is much more efficient with both time and water than watering by hand with hoses or moveable sprinklers.
Security can be a concern in school gardens. Garden plants are not often vandalized, but equipment, like tool sheds and garden structures, can be damaged or stolen. It’s useful to have a fence to keep dogs and cats out of the garden as much as possible, to protect plants and for hygiene reasons. If your school is in a rural area you will probably need a deer fence.
What will the garden be used for?
You can create support for the garden by finding out what other people would like to use it for and plan for these uses. There might be an amazingly wide range of visions. Some possibilities are:
- Growing food to teach about nutrition and promote interest in healthy foods.
- Teaching academic subjects: Many teachers use the garden for hands-on teaching or as a peaceful place to read, write or have class discussions.
- Habitat: There is often interest in creating habitat areas – mostly for birds, butterflies and beneficial insects. Planting local native plants will help to give students a sense of place for the region in which they live.
- Beauty: Everyone on the school site appreciates a beautiful garden. The garden can be planted to provide flowers and greenery for decorating classrooms.
- Meeting place: A school garden can attract groups of people. Tables or maybe a shade structure can help serve this purpose. Gardens can be used for school or class parties, award ceremonies, meetings, drama presentations or storytelling.
- Recycling: A cafeteria recycling program can send compost scraps out to the garden.
- Playground: A sandbox or a play place for preschool age children will make it easier for parent volunteers with younger children to contribute to the garden.
- After School or lunchtime activities, like gardening or cooking clubs, can take place in the garden.
Funding the School Garden
Once you have a plan and rough sketch, make a list of the materials and tools that will be needed and estimate how much they will cost. If your school doesn’t have the funds, break the project down into phases.
Start-up funds can come from the school site council, parent-teacher organizations, or by fundraising from the school community. Established gardens often raise money by selling plants or produce that they’ve grown.
Finding sources for year after year sustainable garden funding is very important, especially if your school would like to hire a garden coordinator. Make a list of possible school or community fundraisers that could be held yearly and would dedicate proceeds to the garden. These might include dinner-in-the-garden events, plant, bulb or herb sales, local businesses that would agree to donating a percentage of profits for the day, or any sucessful fundraising event that your school usually puts on.
Much more information for anyone interested in starting a school garden can be found in Gardens for Learning. Gardens for Learning is a comprehensive guidebook from the California School Garden Network that provides a strong foundation to support the growing school garden movement. The guide was developed by a team of experienced garden educators, nutritionists, state officials, and other garden experts. This is an essential resource for anyone looking to enhance learning through the use of gardens in schools and other community settings.
You’ll find this guidebook online at the California School Garden Network website.