A school garden is becoming an educational must, but, without an experienced gardener on the staff, it’s difficult for schools to know where to start. Here at GrowVeg.com we’re frequently asked how to set up a school garden and in compiling this article I spoke to Sophie Ioannou, an Environmental Educator who runs gardens in London’s inner-city schools, including Pooles Park Primary; we've also included links to resources from many useful organisations.
Planning a School Garden
Sophia is used to establishing gardens in schools which possess little space and few resources, but for any school she advises, "Start off very small." This is because, in her experience, teachers do not have time to run a garden. "If you start simply," says Sophia, "you generate momentum and people take an interest." Before you know it, you’ll have a bank of volunteers and, meanwhile, won’t have burdened yourself with an enormous learning curve.
Even starting small, you need helpers. Sophia establishes a weekly rota with children as monitors for tasks such as composting and watering, but nevertheless gets in local volunteers at least once every other month to keep on top of maintenance.
Garden Organic's Food for Life Partnership contains a comprehensive breakdown on getting started and advises on planning, fitting the garden into the national curriculum, and provides instruction leaflets for students and teachers.
Sophia grabs whatever space is available and has tucked beds in corners and under windows, though somewhere sunny and well-drained is best. If the site is in full view, so much the better; the more interest raised, the more offers of help you’ll get.
Caitlin Mathis says: "Space plants well so little feet are free to go in and explore without stepping on too many plants." Raised beds have clear boundaries and, as you’re possibly taking on a tough piece of land, they mean that you won’t have to dig deeply and can fill them with good quality compost, vital for successful plants. Deep beds could even be placed on tarmac. Wherever they are, make them narrow enough for small children to reach across easily.
What to Grow in a School Garden
Easy-to grow vegetables include early potatoes (grow quickly and fun to dig); beetroot; pumpkins (lots of character and ready after the summer); cherry tomatoes (the easiest type to grow and eat); peas (delicious straight from the pod); rainbow chard (very colourful); and fast-growing saladings such as cut-and-come-again lettuces, oriental leaves and rocket. Have a look at our article Easiest Vegetables to Grow and Dallas Arboretum’s ABC’s of School Gardens. As Claudia Maskeroni advises: "Do not set them up for failure. Plant plants that they will actually harvest by the end of the school year."
The Royal Horticultural Society’s Campaign for School Gardening has superb resources, offering a simple school’s Vegetable Crop Schedule and Month-by-Month timeline, as well as a handy range of lesson plans.
Our own Garden Planner is always popular with children and we do special educational accounts so it can be used by a whole class at once - great as a wet-weather option if conditions outside aren't right for digging!
Perennial herbs like rosemary, lavender, oregano, fennel and thyme attract bees and butterflies and offer strong scents to explore. The Herb Society’s teachers’ pages contain a garden plan.
As your confidence grows, so more can be added. Kimberley Edwards suggests giving all classes their own garden in their first year, to see through until their last. "Let them do everything – design, plant, harvest, eat, so they learn from their mistakes." There’s a full rundown on planning and how to involve children from the very beginning at Kids Gardening.
Sophia recommends a greenhouse to start seeds off early and protect them from pests. Alternatively, volunteers can grow seedlings at home and bring them in for planting.
Every gardener will tell you that it’s impossible to garden strictly to plan. "We work with what’s happening on the day," says Sophie, who installs a pond and wildlife area where possible. "When food slows down, I might get them to develop the woodland area. It’s a holistic approach – encouraging pollinators into the garden – helping children to see the whole picture."
School Garden Funding and Free Resources
The RHS’s brief guide to funding suggests ways to find support locally as well as a list of UK funding bodies. One possible source of materials in the USA is the National Association for the Exchange of Industrial Resources, and School Garden Wizard gives other ideas as well as a sample letter to businesses asking for donations.
Margaret Burton suggests that local garden centres and timber merchants will contribute materials in return for a mention in the local paper. At Sophia’s schools, parents contribute seeds, leading to a "global garden" with okra, aubergine (eggplant), and pumpkins from Bangladesh.
The simplest gardens don’t have to be expensive; the project on The Grow Your Own Grub website costs somewhere between £40 and £60 ($60 - $95).
Finally, don’t worry when things go wrong. An RHS report on school gardening states, "From failed crops to insect damage, children were forced to deal with setbacks to achieve positive goals." Resilience in the face of disappointment is yet another life-skill conferred by gardening.
By Helen Gazeley. Photos courtesy of Garden Organic.