Establishing Your School Garden
A series of guides to getting your school garden up and growing!
Part Two - Building the Garden
You've gotten approval to go ahead with your school garden project, and now you are ready to start the actual building and installation of the garden. Before you pick up a shovel or a hammer, though, there are some things to consider.
First, consider the physical site you have chosen for the garden. Does it have full sunlight? Full sun usually means at least 6 hours of direct sun. If you are planning a vegetable garden, you will want full-sun exposure; you have more leeway if you are planting a flower garden. You will need to monitor your site to see how much sun it gets. This should be done after March 15th. You can keep an eye on the site for a day or two and make notes. You can set up a shadow pole to track the sun. A shadow pole is any vertical stick or stake, about six feet high, stuck in the ground, which will help you note the movements of the sun. There are also devices that can be bought that calculate the amount of sun a spot gets. Keep in mind that exposure changes throughout the season, and take this into consideration when planning. Also consider the growth and potential shade of any nearby trees. Lastly, decide whether you want or need some kind of fencing around the garden.
Make sure to have a water source for your garden. Ideally, your garden will be near an outdoor spigot. This is something that should be planned when the school is selecting the site. If you are not near an outdoor faucet, check with the school to see if a hose can be run, preferably underground to a free-standing spigot set up in the garden. If not, you may have to have your students run a hose each time they need to water. You might also consider the use of rain barrels. There are some safety issues with rain barrels you should review before using them. Before the garden is constructed is the best time to decide whether you garden will utilize soaker hoses or drip irrigation, or if the students will water by hand.
Plan the style of the garden. Construction of raised beds is an expense worth considering. With raised beds, maintenance is minimized, accessibility is maximized, and plantings are healthier. Raised beds can be built from wooden boards, or cinder blocks, and there are kits available to build them from these and other materials. Be certain to check into getting materials donated. There are plans and images all over the internet with details on how to design and build raised beds, some of which are very creative and attractive. Perhaps you have a carpenter amongst your group of parent volunteers who can lead the group in building. Don't forget to factor in vertical gardening - trellises for vining plants such as beans, peas, and cucumbers; keep in mind the placement of such trellises so as not to block light for other plants. Remember to make your pathways wide enough - at least 48 inches - to allow access. Pathways can be grass, packed stone dust, or wood chips. Also plan now if you want an on-site shed to house your tools and equipment, or an outdoor sink to aid in clean-up, and pick a spot for your compost pile.
Keep accessibility in mind. Cinder blocks are good for building taller beds, which may be more easily accessible for students in wheelchairs. For best accessibility, consider building standing beds, which are planter boxes raised off the ground on legs. Students in wheelchairs can work at a comfortable level with these. Some plans are available which allow for a wheelchair to be wheeled right under the standing bed. Consider a vertical wall garden, as well as hanging containers, for easy access. Also keep in mind general accessibility - is there enough room for a group of students to gather for a lesson? Are there spots where students can sit and make notes? Room for visitors to enjoy the garden? Are paths wide enough to permit wheelbarrows?
What is your soil like? A soil test can be done as part of a science class, as well as sending out to the UConn Soil Nutrient Analysis Lab. Soil testing is especially important in urban areas, if the garden is on or near a site previously used for industrial or commercial purposes.
Hopefully you have a great group of motivated parents ready and eager to pitch and get building! But don't forget to let the students get involved too! Students will love to be part of building their garden, and can handle age-appropriate tasks, using tools, shoveling and sifting soil, measuring and planning, dumping wood chips in the paths, and assisting the adults. After the construction phase is done, invite the students to personalize the garden with art - paint and decorate any pots or containers, paint raised beds or the shed, make decorative signs and labels, and add any kind of decorative art to the garden.
When the garden is built, it's time to consider what you will plant. This can be tricky with a school garden. While we all think of tomatoes and squash and other wonderful summer vegetables, keep in mind the reality that most schools are in session from August to June. For this reason, cool-season crops should be favored. These can be planted and tended within the school year, and harvested in June before school ends. Some plants to consider include lettuce, spinach, kale, carrots, parsnips, radishes, peas, garlic, broccoli, and green beans. Potatoes, planted in spring and harvested in fall, are a good choice. There are also perennial vegetables such as asparagus, rhubarb, scallions, Egyptian onions and Jerusalem artichokes. Perennial herbs include oregano, chives, and thyme.
Some schools do keep their garden going over the summer. In some instances, arrangements are made before the school year ends where each student/family signs up to volunteer a few hours for one week during the summer. Two or three families spending two hours each in the garden per week is enough to keep it maintained, and the students get to take home produce in the summer.
Don't forget your tools and supplies. Apart from tools needed to construct the garden, once it is up and running you will need at least one wheelbarrow, shovels and spades, trowels, hoes, rakes, weeding tools, hoses, watering cans, and pruners/scissors for harvesting. Supplies include seeds, soil, pots and trays, containers to carry the harvest, gloves, and perhaps items geared toward lessons, like scales or insect collection boxes. Remember that size-appropriate tools and supplies will lead to easier use and less frustration for younger students.
As always, see about getting donations from local businesses and organizations, and parents as well. Make use of all the resources available - consider getting not only materials and money, but labor help and design ideas as well. Tap into groups such as the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, especially if you have a pack or troop right at your school. There just might be an Eagle Scout in your community looking for a project. Look into getting assistance from the Master Gardener Program; participants in this program are required to volunteer for community projects, so this is a great resource for help with your school garden.
Remember that you don't have to build your garden in one year. You can start small, with containers or perhaps a small bed or two. This smaller garden is easily manageable and will serve as a learning tool while planning a larger garden. You can also expand and add to your garden as you go along - perhaps add a compost pile, or plant some fruit trees or berry bushes as the years pass. There are many wonderful resources that can give more in-depth information on getting your garden established. Visit CT NOFA's School Resources Page for further reading. I've also listed some resources below.
Best of luck and have fun!
Life Lab Science Program/The Center for Ecoliteracy's Guide to Getting Started
Food & Agriculture Organization of the UN: Setting Up & Running a School Garden (see Part 5 for specifics on layout and construction)
Plan and Design Your Garden from Grow to Learn NYC
Edible Schoolyards: An Overview for Getting Started by Betty Lou Sandy