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Steps to consider when starting a school garden

With a little help from Mother Nature and support from the school community, school gardens can be quite rewarding and successful if simple guidelines are followed, said University of Illinois Extension horticulture educator Nancy Kreith.

“School gardens can enhance academics, serve as living laboratories, provide students with fresh food and exercise, and create a sense of ownership and community,” Kreith said.

School gardens can be a large commitment so often teachers and garden coordinators recruit community members and parents to mentor and assist the students. “Some schools are fortunate enough to team up with Master Gardeners,” Kreith explained. “In Illinois, Master Gardeners (MG) are trained by U of I Extension in areas of horticulture and provide technical assistance to the public at no cost. In fact, there are over 3,000 active MG volunteers in Illinois!”

In collaboration with MG volunteers and school garden participants, Kreith typically provides assistance during the planning phase, on major installation days, and by providing educational programs on a bi-monthly basis. “It is helpful to keep the interest of students during the winter months by conducting horticulture programs suitable for the classroom, such as forcing flower bulbs, growing lettuce on window sills, transplant starting, and worm composting,” she said.

Kreith added that beyond support from Extension, major backing from the school community is essential for maintaining a rewarding school garden. Her research suggests that in order for a garden to operate smoothly, approximately four out of five leader roles are needed from the following categories: garden coordinator, teacher, parent, volunteer, and administration. “Be cautious not to potentially exhaust themselves by taking on too many garden responsibilities,” she cautioned.

Once an appropriate number of leaders are on board, the planning phase can begin.

“One of the most successful approaches to implementing a school garden includes the planning phases. Before groundbreaking begins, steps to consider include but are not limited to: creating a mission or goal(s) of the garden, creating awareness around the school community, raising funding, and coming to a consensus on the type of garden, (that is, vegetable, ornamental, native, or a mix of the above), and then selecting an appropriate garden location,” Kreith said.

Garden location is an important factor and should not be overlooked.  When investigating a location Kreith suggests looking for a protected and safe area, adequate sun (the majority of vegetables need at least 6 hours of sun per day), a nearby water source, and good soil conditions.

“Soil conditions are considered poor when there is inadequate drainage, insufficient nutrient-holding capacity, or contaminants are found in the soil,” Kreith explained. “Be sure to test your soil to ensure it is safe for growing food.”

She also suggests contacting your local Extension office for procedures on collecting and interpreting a soil test. U of I Extension provides a list of soil testing labs at http://urbanext.illinois.edu/soiltest/.

If soil conditions are poor, consider building a berm or installing a raised bed. There are various safe construction materials that can be used for building a raised bed. Your local Extension service can also offer guidance for raised bed construction.

“School garden complexity can range from a few simple raised beds to the more elaborate butterfly garden, native garden, other themed garden, or any combination of the above,” Kreith said. “Whatever type of garden you choose, building it in phases will make it more manageable and affordable.”

As the school garden expands, so should the network of garden participants in order to maintain the larger garden spaces.

If cost is a prohibiting factor, start small and expand as needed, Kreith explained. There are a number of school garden grants available on an annual basis. For a list of garden grants, visit: https://www.educationoutside.org/school-garden-grants.

Also keep in mind that not everything for your school garden is necessarily cost prohibitive. Many materials can be procured at schools on-site through recycling collection such as cardboard and newspaper. These materials are effective weed preventers and can be used to kill off lawn and weeds by laying the paper material down, wetting it, and covering it with compost, Kreith said.

“This is a cost- and time-efficient way of starting a new garden plot. The wet paper suffocates the grass and weeds, is biodegradable, and after a month or so, students can dig right in to install plants,” she added.

Kreith said that addressing the issue of summer maintenance in the garden can be a challenge. “Most schools are not in session during the summer, which happens to be Illinois’s most diversified growing season,” she said. Kreith suggests getting parents and families onboard to adopt the garden for the summer.

In her experience, Keith said a number of school gardens were very successful during the summer months without the presence of teachers. “Families of students and MG volunteers sustained the garden during the summer. If summer helpers are limited or unavailable, utilize cool-season crops in the spring and fall months,” she added.

For more information on starting a school garden and incorporating garden-based curriculum, please visit the U of I Extension website at: http://urbanext.illinois.edu/gpe/index.cfm.

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