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Unlocking Success: The Essential Principles for Growing Thriving School Gardens

teachers and schools Jan 09, 2024

Are you one of those teachers who believes that school gardens don't work? That growing one is a silly idea that comes from a romantic notion but in reality, it's too daunting, difficult, frustrating, and a waste of time and energy?

Unfortunately, you wouldn't be alone! The other day, I was researching school gardens, as I do every once in a while to keep up to date with what's new in my field of work, and when I typed "why grow a school garden", Google suggested the search term "Why not grow a school garden". Obviously, I was intrigued so I clicked on it. And to my surprise, there was a blog post written by a mom who tried growing a school garden at her kids' school and it turned out such a huge disappointment and such a source of frustration that she felt compelled to write a whole blog about it, warning others about the dangers of such attempts!

Needless to say, I was not surprised when I read about how her community went about growing this garden. They essentially made every mistake in my book. No wonder why it turned out a failure! The problem is, they did it the way most people would! There are books written advising people to do it this way. I'm not going to name names because I know in my heart that all these people giving advice are doing it to help others. It's so unfortunate that their advice is the opposite of what it should be!

I started growing school gardens as a parent a decade ago, in an after-school club. During the past decade, I've written gardening programs after gardening programs. I've tested this concept with after-school programs and in-school programs, as a parent and as a teacher, as a vendor and a community partner, in private schools and public schools, running community planting events and student club events, I've done it in lunch time, after-hours, weekends, and during instructional time side-by-side classroom teachers. You name it, I've done it!

Another thing I did in the past decade was go back to school in three ways. I got my landscape design certificate. I got my Permaculture Design Certificate. I got my Master's Degree in Environmental Studies along with a "Sustainability Education" diploma and a "Business and the Environment" diploma. I really dug deep into this concept of school gardens and wrote my Master's Major Project Research on the obstacles in the way of school gardens.



So when I said "in my book" before, I was talking about a "book" filled with valuable experience in this field of work. I can say with confidence that I know how to grow school gardens successfully and I can detect a failure waiting to happen from miles away! I know what to do and in which order and I also know what not to do. It pains me when I see communities come together enthusiastically with the novel hope of growing a school garden, only to follow the footsteps of all past failed school gardens all over again.
The good news is, school gardens can work very well, and with a lot of ease too, if they are built and managed the right way!

Four principals should be in place and followed to grow an educational, hands-on, school garden that becomes an authentic learning and a modern teaching tool, one that looks amazing, works magically, produces ample amounts of food, wows the community, engages students, and makes everyone involved proud:

School Gardens should be

1) Grown by the students and ONLY the students during the school year
This means, no adult should ever tough the garden! No parents should be assigned to water the garden. No teacher should be planting, and no custodian should be weeding, etc.

When adults take on the chores two problems are created. First of all, the garden turns into a community garden as opposed to a school garden, and the educational aspect of the garden gets lost in the noise. Anything the students don't do is a missed learning opportunity for the students. The second problem it creates is that now someone has to put together a volunteer group, assign roles and responsibilities, and then run around after people to make sure things get done. People step on each other's toes, don't do the work they're assigned to do, blame each other, and get into all sorts of disagreements with each other, and overall, managing them will become a nightmare! And before you jump at me with the "my community is a snowflake" argument, let me remind you that it only takes one person to create a mess no one can clean up! And teachers should not be expected to manage volunteer groups. They are busy trying to survive under mountains of work already!



2) Run by teachers
This is where I politely ask parents to back off, please! We know you have all the best intentions. I've been one of those parents myself. Believe me when I say, by trying to run a school garden project you'll be doing a disservice to your community. Parents are not educators. Teachers are! An educational garden, which is what a school garden is supposed to be, is a tool for teaching. Since parents generally don't know how to teach and are not familiar with the curriculum enough to know what needs to be taught, they should leave the garden project to the teachers, as with any other educational project at school.

3) Supported by parents
Of course, a school garden that's supported by the parents' community is much more successful! Parents' support is needed to fundraise for educational programs, supplies, and materials. Their support is also crucial to keep the garden going during summertime when the teachers are away on their very well-deserved vacation and the students are not around to take care of the garden.

And last but definitely not least...

4) A school garden should be grown during class time and during the school day.
School gardens that are grown in student clubs and after-hours programs fail. If not in the first season, definitely in the second! Growing a garden requires persistent timely work according to the season as well as school schedule. It requires the type of consistency that only exists in the classroom time. And trying to do it outside classroom time needs a lot of effort, time, and energy to create that level of structure. It baffles me whenever I see teachers trying to do this outside their class when they can perfectly do it during class by connecting the garden to their curriculum. Connect is does, to math, science, language, social studies, health, community, arts, and everything beyond, above and in between!

Another thing that's very much worth mentioning is, that teachers jump at growing an outdoor school garden right away when they should start with a classroom garden first! In my "book," there are two phases to growing a successful school garden that's maintained and utilized for years to come. Phase one is growing a classroom garden, preferably for the entire first year, and possibly even forever. I'll explain what I mean by that in a minute. Phase two is growing an outdoor school garden.

When teachers grow seedlings indoors and make that successful first, and then move to grow a school garden the second year, they break the learning curve into two which makes their school garden much more likely to succeed. You see, contrary to what a lot of teachers would like to believe, there is a lot more to growing a successful and producing school garden than transplanting seedlings in it. It's best to learn to start with seeds, grow those to strong seedlings first, and then learn to design, build, grow, and maintain a school garden.

The really good news is that phase one classroom garden, if done right, could be much more impactful and amazingly producing than most outdoor school gardens So much so that many of the teachers in my programs completely forget about outdoor gardens and keep doing the classroom garden phase again and again for years. It could be that great!

What would they do with all the seedlings they grow if there's no garden to transplant them into, you asked?

They harvest and enjoy the short-maturing plants with their students and then donate, send home, or even sell (hint: entrepreneurial connection) the rest of the seedlings in a little market the students put together. So much fun! So much learning! So many community connections!

Of course, there is a lot more to this 2-phase plan that I briefly described here that I cannot possibly go through in a blog. But I do share all the step-by-step details with all the practical aspects in a free webinar that I run every year for elementary and middle-school teachers called "School Gardens with Ease" during December and January. 

I highly suggest you go and catch a spot on it if you read this blog before the end of January 2024 here:

I hope you join the small camp of supporters of school gardens! I am on a mission to help more and more teachers grow more and more successful examples of school gardens. That would encourage even more teachers to jump on the train with us and together we would put a successful, flourishing, producing, educational, amazing school garden at every school!
Why not? We can do it!
Hope to work with you to achieve this amazing goal soon.