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How to Grow a School Garden

by: Arden Bucklin-Sporer and Rachel Kathleen Pringle 

A school garden is an outdoor classroom oasis, attracting countless organisms, each a rich opportunity to teach students about the complex and fascinating ecosystem that we are all a part of. School gardens provide on-site “field trip” opportunities for students. School gardens may be as small as raised boxes on the asphalt play yard. In some cases, a school may have the space to take over an unused playing field or parking lot and turn it into a mini-farm with chickens and even goats or sheep. School gardens may be designed to help students learn about food and nutrition by planting edible crops, or lessons might focus on the local habitat by planting native plants. The common denominator of all school gardens, however, is that various classes utilize them as outdoor classrooms.

Numerous studies point to school gardens as a means of improving academic achievement, promoting healthy lifestyles, demonstrating the principles of stewardship, encouraging community and social development, and instilling a sense of place. Children benefit enormously from a working knowledge of good nutrition and healthy lifestyle choices, and this is compellingly taught in a school garden. Experiences in the garden infinitely improve students’ knowledge about and attitudes toward eating vegetables. Several studies show that students who grow their own food are much more likely to eat fresh fruits and vegetables or express a preference for these foods.

Getting your principal’s support

The first task in building the foundation of a strong garden project is a sales pitch to the principal. Explaining the many levels at which a school garden program will support the school’s curriculum will enlist the principal’s interest and support—without it, it will be difficult to move forward. However, the power of the parent community is not to be underestimated—when used carefully and well, it can garner the support of even the most hesitant administrators.

A principal will appreciate a thorough outline of how this garden will work in concert with other school programs, integrate with the core curriculum, and be of great use to the teachers as an outdoor classroom. Included in this outline should be a preliminary design idea, a proposed garden location, a construction timeline, and a stewardship and maintenance plan. Don’t forget to include an annual budget and fundraising strategy. Because of often overwhelming workloads, they may support the project, but don’t want to be buried in an avalanche of details. Regular and concise status reports will go a long way in smoothing the way forward.

Starting the garden

 

At least six month or a year is advised as a planning time. During this period, make sure that the teachers are consulted. If a teacher wants to teach water cycles, perhaps a pond with a roof water harvesting system would help illustrate these concepts. Spending some time clarifying how teachers would like to use their new outdoor classroom will go a long way toward ensuring its long-term sustainability. And before you get too far in your planning, talk to your school district’s Facilities Department. The piece of ground you are going to alter is land they are responsible for.

Sustaining the garden

 An individual school garden program is fragile, dependent on ongoing parent enthusiasm and support, principal and teacher engagement, and a clear and sturdy organizational plan. When school garden programs band together, they become a force to be reckoned with. As the link between humans and our own ecology becomes more and more tenuous, we have the opportunity to strengthen and rebuild those connections in a school garden before they become too distant to be relevant.

Arden Bucklin-Sporer is executive director of the San Francisco Green Schoolyard Alliance and a founding partner at a Berkeley landscape design firm.

Rachel Kathleen Pringle is program manager of the San Francisco Green Schoolyard Alliance and was garden educator and coordinator of a public school garden in San Francisco.

Starting a garden project is a wonderful opportunity for collaborating with fellow parents. Find a group that will provide different perspectives. Start by including everyone who would like to be part of the project. Reach out to people with widely differing talents, not just the landscapers, horticulturalists, and gardeners; think about who might be a good writer, web developer, organizer, or neighborhood activist.

 

They are coauthors of How to Grow a School Garden: A Complete Guide for Parents and Teachers, a Timber Press publication that will debut in June 2010.