Thinking about creating a school garden? You’ve come to the right place!
School growing projects and educational gardens are becoming increasingly important – they’ve been shown to benefit young minds in a whole host of ways.
Our back gardens at home are shrinking and many children don’t have access to any private outside space at home, so gardening in a classroom environment is an extremely valuable experience.
Introducing growing projects in schools can enhance learning, have numerous health benefits, and instil a positive love of the outdoors in the hearts of our little ones. It’s worth it just to see the smiles of wonder and satisfaction on their faces as they see the first shoots peeking up from soil!
Getting a school garden up and running can have its challenges, but it’s an exciting and rewarding project. Don’t worry – I’ll also let you in on some of my personal experience to help you navigate a few potential stumbling blocks!
Below you’ll find a comprehensive guide to starting a growing project in your school, offering valuable information to help you launch a life-changing gardening experience for your students!
The Benefits of Garden Growing Projects for Children
Children universally benefit from fresh air and sunlight. Gardening is one way we can tempt them into the great outdoors; encouraging them to get involved with immune-system strengthening soil whilst soaking up vitamin D from the sun.
Dedicating time in schools to this healthy and rewarding hobby is well-documented to boost kids’ health, but growing projects have other benefits aside from the obvious fresh air and exercise.
If you need convincing (or have a headteacher/board of governors to win over) check out this academic review article on the health and well-being impacts of school gardening.
If you want a quicker summary, below you’ll find some of the ways in which growing projects in schools benefit children’s learning, as well as their physical health.
School Gardens and the Curriculum
The best way to get the most out of a school garden is to incorporate them into the curriculum. This stops them from becoming simply an ‘extra’ activity which may be difficult to fit in or might get neglected.
By making a school garden as relevant to schoolwork as possible, the time needed to maintain it becomes more justifiable. This is one thing that can’t be denied: these gardens will likely require a caretaker, volunteer, or busy teacher to spend a bit of additional time on its upkeep.
The national curriculum recognises the importance of teaching healthy eating, sustainability, and physical exercise which are all life skills that gardening can enhance. In addition, gardens can also fit into more established subjects, bringing another dimension of experiential, hands-on learning to the classroom.
The Food Growing in Schools Taskforce 2012 found that:
“Food growing schools can lead to children eating more fruit and vegetables, and having a better recognition of taste and type. Food growing can increase children’s scientific knowledge, and their environmental awareness.
It also teaches them practical skills that will be useful throughout their lives. The report also shows that food growing helps children’s attainment in core curriculum subjects, particularly science. It demonstrates that food growing in schools can forge strong links with communities.”
So, it’s clear that school growing projects are supplement children’s learning. Let’s take a closer look at how gardening can be naturally incorporated into the curriculum’s core subjects.
School gardens are inspirational for creative poems, non-fiction descriptive writing, and how-to guides.
What’s more, because they change with the seasons, gardens can offer inspiration for English lessons all year round. It’s much more stimulating for a child to smell a mint plant and write about it from this vibrant experience, rather than sit it a classroom and work from an old and uninspiring minty memory.
There are plenty of opportunities to use number skills in a garden.
Plus, it’s perfect for all ages – from the basics of counting out seeds, to more advanced estimations of the percentage that will germinate, gardens can be used in so many different maths lessons!
If you’re looking for inspiration for older students, you could create graphs measuring the heights of plants, or set the task of calculating the area and perimeter of the growing patch. It can be really great to do these lessons in the garden where children have something physical to look at, which can make calculations seem more worthwhile, rather than just reading examples from a textbook.
There’s a whole world of environmental and biological studies awaiting students’ eager minds in the garden.
Pollination, the seasons, what a plant needs to grow, plant life cycles, insect lifecycles, environmental sustainability… the list goes on and on!
Gardens can also be used in science lessons to create hypotheses and conduct experiments: can children predict what will happen to a seed? Can they keep track of its measurements, health, and how different growing conditions affect it?
These experiments and observations are great for encouraging children to write reports about the plants, keeping track of when the seed germinates, grows, and produces fruit.
Plus, gardens are a great way to start conversations about conservation too. Studying a simple insect house can lead to further lessons about about today’s environmental issues.
Giving kids the opportunity to prepare food that they’ve grown themselves in a school garden teaches them about the whole food cycle – even better if composting can be incorporated too!
It’s an eye-opening experience for children; watching a tomato grow from a seed to a fruit-bearing plant, and then having the chance to pick the produce, make a salad with it and eat this home-grown food.
You may wish to consider growing herbs. Herbs are perfect for classrooms because they are simple and generally quick to grow. They are great for teaching children about ways to create flavours, not just using salt and sugar, and can demonstrate healthy ways to make food extremely tasty. Ultimately, this can help children choose healthier foods.
Art and Design
The natural world has always inspired artists, and a school garden can act as an ideal stimulus for kids from a young age. Children can draw flowers or use foliage and and petals to create pictures and collages.
From a more technical perspective, asking children to draw alternative garden layouts is a good way to incorporate design and practical thinking; working on proportions, perspectives, space planning and area optimisation.
Lessons in ownership and responsibility can be centred around taking the lead for a particular area in a school garden or even one plant.
Doing this individually, or as a class, helps children understand how their actions influence the world.
Allowing children to see they are trusted and can achieve things by themselves can be really good for growing confidence and leadership skills.
Many studies show that kids benefit from being outside.
As well as their allotted PE time, gardening as part of the curriculum gets children outside in the fresh air.
This can help improve their overall mood, as well as boost their concentration levels when it’s time to return to the classroom.
It’s likely that certain kids will get really into growing; finding themselves immersed in the process and inspired to learn more. A gardening club during the lunch hour or as an after-school activity is a fantastic way the keep these children encouraged and motivated.
These students can also help with the general upkeep of the garden, earning a sense of responsibility and pride whilst conveniently cutting down on the time that a member of staff will have to spend on maintenance!
Extracurricular activities are high on a parent’s mind when it comes to selecting a school – they want to make sure there is a lot of rich variety on offer. A gardening club is an attractive prospect for both students and parents alike.
How to Set up a School Growing Project
Well then! We’ve seen why school gardens are a fantastic idea, and understood just how much they can enhance learning, but now you might be wondering – how can I even start such a project?
Luckily, it’s easier and cheaper than you might think! Here are some guidelines and ideas to get you started:
How To Fund It?
Lack of money is a problem for schools, that much we know. With many education facilities finding themselves perpetually strapped for cash, a school garden may seem too much of a financial stretch.
But school gardens don’t have to cost the earth and can be set up cheaply.
A dug-over patch of grass with inexpensive seeds, or even just a few plants, can result in a basic school garden set-up that only costs a few pounds. If it’s popular, the garden can expand as and when funds allow.
You can always try to get the school fundraising committee to set up a school garden fundraising event. Plus, asking parents and carers for donations of plants, tools, and time can really contribute to the success of a new garden venture!
Another way to approach setting up a school garden is by inviting a local garden centre or builder’s merchant to help. For a mention in the local paper, they may donate supplies to get you started.
Who Will Run It?
Without a dedicated school gardener, plants won’t get the pest control treatment or water that they need to grow well. If the garden isn’t looked after, ultimately it can become a big disappointment and a waste of resources.
Someone needs to take primary responsibility for the project. BUT (and this is important!) this doesn’t mean they need to do all the work themselves – more like be the person who sets up a watering rota, for example.
This can be a teacher, volunteer, or, if you’re lucky, a team of garden-minded locals with a keen interest in helping children learn about the natural world.
Where To Put It?
Any garden needs sun and well-draining soil to flourish, but this isn’t always possible to find in the confines of school grounds – especially as there generally aren’t acres of surplus space in the yard!
You might have to compromise, but don’t get disheartened – any growing space is better than none at all! You can adjust what to grow depending on the conditions, and this can be just another factor that forms part of the children’s science lessons.
A school garden should also be in full view of the teachers on break duty and the lunch staff, so everyone can remain visible and safe outside.
Open Gardens Or Raised Beds?
Raised beds mark a clear boundary and protect plants from well-meaning but trampling feet. A raised bed is simple to make; four lengths of wood screwed together, filled with soil or compost and you’re there!
Another nice point about raised beds is that they can double as seating, plus if there’s only tarmac to site them on then deep raised beds will work. Make them as deep as possible, and make sure there are plenty of bugs and fertiliser to work the soil.
One thing to bear in mind is the height of the raised beds, because you don’t want them to be too high for younger children. Alternatively you could great higher and lower beds for different-age students.
Whilst raised beds work well in a school environment because they can be placed wherever there’s space, a small dug-over patch of grass will also work perfectly, creating a small garden that kids will love.
Ultimately, you have to work with space you have available, but know that whatever layout you choose you’ll be able to create a great gardening environment for the kids.
Here’s a step-by-step guide to set up each type of garden.
Create A Raised Bed
- Wooden planks or railway sleepers. Any planks of wood will do but bear in mind the thinner they are the quicker they will rot out. Railway sleepers are a good choice but pricey, so I’d recommend tanalised pre-treated timber planks
- Wooden stakes to sit in the corners, preferably pointed at one end
- Spirit level
- Plastic sheeting such as garden sacks on a roll
- A drill
- A stapler and staples
1. What Size?
A metre in width by a few metres in length is good. Go for 25cms in height minimum.
2. Where to Put it – Grass or Tarmac?
Placing a raised bed on flat soil is the best option. This allows worms and beneficial bacteria to work up and create a healthy environment.
As a last resort, raised beds could go directly on tarmac. They will need to be at least 50 cms high, taller if you can manage it.
The problem with building raised beds on tarmac is they dry out quickly and the roots of larger plants can’t dig so deep. Make tarmac the very last resort.
But I’d still say a raised bed on tarmac is better than no garden at all!
3. How To Build It
Lay your planks in place and then use a mallet to hammer the first stake into the ground.
This stake will sit inside the bed, so once it’s in place, drill a hole in the outer face and screw one end of a plank to the stake.
Repeat this until you’ve created a rectangle. Use the spirit level as you go to keep the boards level.
The base always remains open.
4. Lining The Wood
All wood rots, even pre-treated wood will eventually give up to nature, so staple plastic sheets or garden sacks to the inside wall leaving the base open.
5. What Soil
Fill a raised bed with top soil and a layer of compost. On its own, compost is prone to drying out and it doesn’t have beneficial bacteria to support the plants as they grow.
You’ll need to top them up in spring as soil will naturally compact down as air is pushed out and the soil beneath absorbs it
Creating An Open Garden
- Ground Pegs
- Turf cutter or sharp spade
- Garden fork
The same size as the raised bed recommendation at 1 metre wide by 2 metres in length so little arms can reach across without trampling anything.
How To Dig It
Mark out the perimeter with ground pegs and string.
Then it’s time to remove the turf. The easiest way is to hire a turf cutter for the day or if that’s not an option roll up your sleeves and go old school to create 12 x 12 inch squares with a spade. Slice about an inch beneath to remove the turf.
When the top is off it’s time to dig. It’s best to dig down ‘two spits’ that’s the length of your spade and the same again. Remove stones and roots as you go. It’s time-consuming work, but worth it.
If you’re going to grow fruit and veggies dig in some well-rotted manure or Growmore/chicken pellets to fertilise the soil. Herbs and wildflowers won’t need this step though.
Creating a garden from a grassy area is harder work than raised beds for sure, but it is a cheaper option and will work just as well.
What About Tools?
Tools are an important part of gardening. Using tools whilst gardening will help develop children’s motor skills and confidence as well as teach them about responsibility and sharing – don’t shy away from using them!
An array of child-sized tools makes gardening easier for younger learners. Gloves, watering cans, trowels, and hand forks are the minimum.
Tools must always be safely locked away when not in use and never left out for children to play with. A safe lockable storage unit near the garden is preferable, alternatively they can be taken inside and locked up each night.
Teacher Supervision Is Essential
Schools are safe places so teachers and DBS checked staff should always be present.
If you’re a parent volunteer as I am, both parties need to keep safe – that’s the children and you.
Schools provide parent volunteers with training and undertake DBS checks to make sure all is well. If you’re a volunteer, always sign in and make sure staff know you are there.
Good Plants To Get Kids Growing
So, you have a garden and hopefully some student interest – now, what are you going to grow?
Safe Plants For a School Garden
Before planting anything, do some research and make sure the plants you want to grow aren’t toxic in any way. Don’t grow anything that could cause a child to have a reaction.
Euphorbia, for example, is a very pretty early flowering plant that you’d be forgiven for thinking would brighten a school garden, but the milky sap is an eye and skin irritant so it’s best avoided.
If you grow tomatoes, potatoes, and rhubarb, the children should be taught that not all parts of a plant are edible. The leaves of the tomato, potato, and rhubarb plant are toxic but the fruits are very tasty. Equally, children should be taught about which produce can be eaten raw and which has to be cooked.
The RHS has a list of potentially toxic plants which is a good place to start when planning your school garden.
Other considerations might include avoiding plants which could hurt kids, such as shrubs with thorns like raspberries and gooseberries.
Don’t let the stress if choosing the right plants put you off though. These are just factors to consider when making your selection. There are lots of plants that are perfectly safe for school gardens that aren’t toxic or thorny. Rosemary, lettuce, pumpkins, and sunflowers are all excellent in these settings for instance.
Suitable Plants For Enthusiasm Levels
What to grow depends on how involved the teachers are. If the garden is just there to enjoy at break time, you’ll want to make different plant choices than if the gardens are fully involved in the food-tech curriculum.
Gardens that are involved in curriculum learning and have more involvement from the children during lessons can have easy veg and pretty flowers. It’s best to choose plants that grow quickly before the summer holidays start.
Here’s a selection of veggies and easy-grow plants for these gardens:
- Cut and come again salad – quick growing and tasty. Plenty for everyone.
- Strawberries – everyone loves strawberries!
- Climbing beans – fast-growing, tall and fascinating to open the pods!
- Pumpkins – bright and colourful, they get very large and are ready to pick in the new school year.
- Marrows – huge flowers, huge marrows!
- Peas – sugar snaps are delicious and the majority of kids enjoy eating them.
- Rainbow chard – something leafy and unusual for the autumnal months. Rainbow chard is bright and colourful and it encourages exploration with leafy veg.
- Sunflowers – the ultimate easy-to-grow flower that can start life in a classroom yogurt pot.
- Marigolds – small, bright, hardy.
- Love-in-a-mist – easy to grow flowers with a pretty, blue variety that children always like.
Small plug plants, which have already germinated and established roots, are a good way to start kids off gardening if seeds are not an option or the classroom project fails to germinate.
Low Maintenance School Gardens
Consider a sensory herb garden if you’re looking to maximise the chances of something good happening with minimal effort. You can grow a mix of herbs in these plots that look, taste, and smell interesting – it’ll be an experience that is virtually irresistible to kids!
If you have a sunny school garden choose from marjoram, oregano, sage, rosemary, tarragon, thyme, and winter savoury. A shady herb bed supports chives, parsley, lemon balm, fennel, lamb’s ear, catmint, and all types of mint.
Do be wary of mint though – keep it in a pot because it spreads like wildfire and is almost impossible to get rid of.
Wildflower beds are an excellent low-maintenance choice too. Wildflower seed mixes include cornflowers, poppies, corn marigolds, and ox-eye daisies. These boost the biodiversity of the environment and require little watering. They also thrive on poor soil and attract lots of butterflies for children to spot.
If the kids are fond of The Very Hungry Caterpillar (a book I’m sure many of us remember fondly!), then a school wildflower garden will help reveal the real-life process of caterpillars and butterflies!
Wildflower seed packets are cheaply bought and they grow from seed to blooming flowers within a few months. They are quick enough for kids to appreciate and enjoy.
My Personal Experience
I mentioned above that I help on a school growing project. I’ll tell you about it so you can learn from my mistakes!
Two years ago I walked past six barely-used raised beds in the grounds of a local school. I saw them every day and felt they could at least be made to look good even if they weren’t being used as part of the curriculum. When I offered to tidy them up the Head was only too pleased.
The raised beds were in situ and were well spaced; there was a good amount of room to walk between them. No bed measured more than 75 cm in width, and they ran the length of a 5 m space – a good-size area for a class of children to gather around.
Within reason, the Head agreed I could spend what it took to make the garden presentable and useable. I bought plants and kept receipts for reimbursements. I used my own tools each day to keep the costs down.
First off, the beds weren’t in an ideal spot for classroom vegetable-growing activities.
Several were built beneath trees and were surrounded by bricks and tarmac in direct sunlight. This meant they were very dry – some of them I would honestly describe as Sahara-like.
Secondly, I was the only volunteer. The staff were enthusiastic but no-one had time to help water or maintain the beds. A few requests in the newsletter asking for volunteers attracted a little interest, but nothing came of those volunteers.
Thirdly, the raised beds were full to the brim with grass, weeds, cat poo, and whatever else had accumulated during their neglect. What’s more, the soil was baked solid.
I spoke to the Head about what the school wanted from the gardens. They had built one raised bed for each year group, but they’d never been used to their full potential. My task was to make them tidy and look nice.
But as you’ve read above – school gardens can be so much more!
After observing the dry growing conditions, plus the lack of volunteers, I decided that a herb garden was the way forward. Plus, I left one raised bed weed-free for any future school growing projects that might crop up.
It took a few weeks to dig the raised beds over and I added a bit of compost as they were looking pretty thin – even hardy herbs need a bit of help to get going sometimes!
Choosing The Plants
I chose Mediterranean herbs as the beds were in direct sunlight, and I put a different herb in each bed for easy identification.
I planted rosemary, thyme, sage, and lavender, and then sewed common garden mint in large pots sunk into the soil.
The herbs were sourced in multipacks from my local garden centre and I was given a discount when the manager found out it was for a school project.
In the sixth raised bed, I filled half of it with wild alpine strawberries which I cut from runners in my own garden. The other half was left empty for classroom growing projects. A few yogurt-pot beans made it in, plus plenty of peach stones and apple cores.
When a child, filled with excitement, brings you an apple core to plant, it’s hard to say no – so in they went! To my amazement, one peach stone grew.
Installing Signage – Bring On the English Lesson
I bought brightly painted wooden signs to encourage herb identification. When the children saw the raised beds were planted up differently they were enthusiastic about smelling the various plants. Finding a tiny wild strawberry in the sixth planter was a really exciting event for many!
Probably the most compliments I received on the garden were for the wooden signs which I’d bought cheaply on eBay.
Teachers and parents loved the signs and it encouraged them to donate plants. I’d often find a tray of marigolds or similar perched on a raised bed at 9 am.
Inviting In Wildlife
The herbs made their way into the classrooms as toppings on food-tech pasta and pizza creations, plus helped illustrate several science lessons that first year. But, they also made a big impact attracting bees and butterflies to the school grounds.
I added a bee hotel, and although this was mostly pulled apart by younger children looking for bees, it was undoubtedly very popular and a great way to start conversations about wildlife.
Because the bee hotel was such a hit, I added birdbaths. I bought two, supported on stakes, that were a metre high and had brightly coloured metal robins on the rim.
Introducing wildlife was one of the most exciting aspects for me. Helping children overcome their fear of worms and bees was a pleasure.
Picking out a worm and placing it on my open palm was met with shrieks and comments of ‘disgusting worms!’, but then children would also ask “what’s the point of a worm?” – success! A great scientific learning experience right there.
Next up bees. Terrifying to many, but a real favourite of mine. I perched on the raised beds to watch the bees foraging the lavender and rosemary flowers. Always curious, children would ask what I was doing.
The answer of “bee watching” led to screams and scarpering, but they nearly always came back. Why wasn’t I afraid of bees?
Pointing out their stripy, fluffy fur and pollen-laden legs made the bees become more cute than scary, and led to stories about why bees are important to our food chain. ‘Bee time’ became a regular event.
Adding a Water Butt
The addition of a water butt encouraged children even more to look after the new flowerbeds. Children love to water plants, so making it easy with a lidded water butt near the garden really facilitated this activity.
Of course, as with any water butt, you’ll need to be prepared to fish out rubbish every so often!
Kids with Learning Challenges
Every sunny day, Learning Support Assistants would come over with children in need of extra support to spend some time in the garden.
These children loved the experience. Just digging a hole, smelling the calming lavender, looking for butterflies, and helping with watering all contributed to beneficial personal development as well as a happier child.
Pitfalls to Avoid
The Holidays – Drought Danger Time
The long summer holiday can be a problem when it comes to watering, so be realistic about what you’ll be able to grow without constant watering. Of course, you may be lucky enough to have volunteers give up some of their time over the summer break which can help.
Some staff will be in school during the holidays, but they are busy and won’t necessarily have time to tend plants. All the hard work that got put into the plot in term time can be wiped out after just a few weeks of hot weather if the garden isn’t being watered.
This is where the choice of hardy herbs comes into its own. In the garden I managed for the school, the herbs survived the summer and were easily rejuvenated in the new term if they’d dried out a bit.
Cat poo is the bane of gardening. Somehow cats can just sense a well-cared-for flower bed!
After the school day, I found cats entered the playing fields and used the gardens as their private pooing parlour. As a result, you should always make a note to check gardens over in the mornings before children get involved. It can get very messy!
And, speaking of messy…
Dirt, Soil, and Cross Parents
It hasn’t happened to me yet, but I have heard of other schools where parents have been cross about the mess of their child’s uniform after they’ve been involved with the gardening.
If this is the case you may have to add old coats, jumpers, and back-to-front shirts on to the equipment list!
School Gardens Help Learning Success
Setting up a school garden doesn’t have to take lots of time or drain the cash reserves. The project can get off to a flying start with only one enthusiastic volunteer and a simple, hardy herb bed or wildflower patch. If there’s interest, growing fruits and veggies can follow later on.
Being involved in the great outdoors is important for every child’s wellbeing. With kids nowadays having reduced opportunities to interact with plants at home due to shrinking gardens and inner-city living, a school garden can really help fill the gap.
From encouraging healthy eating, to breathing in fresh air and supporting curriculum subjects, a school growing project is worth its weight in gold.
If you’re hesitating about starting a school growing project, I’d say jump in and make a start – it can only lead to good things!