At a school in Baltimore, city kids love to get their hands dirty in the courtyard garden. They learn not only where food like strawberries and peppers come from, but how important good nu­trition is. And they’ll get to take home some of the harvest to share with their families.

In Brooklyn, science teachers use a school garden as an outdoor classroom for lessons about the ecosystem, weather, and seasons. And in a tiny town in Michigan, teachers use a garden to help the school’s youngest students learn their ABCs.

From simple herb gardens to large plots of land, school gardens have spread rapidly across the country in the last few decades. Parent groups have played a key role in the growing trend, working to gain school support, securing funds, and of course, tending the gardens, too.

“School gardening is directly linked to many important issues and developments currently at play in the nation,” says Michele Israel, cochair of the PTA’s garden committee at P.S. 107, the John W. Kimball Learning Center in Brooklyn, N.Y. Students learn about nature and their role in it, healthy eating, and much more, Israel says. “It’s about real-world learning that is meaningful and practical. It’s about being civic-minded.”

Schools have used gardens to provide hands-on learning opportunities, promote healthy eating, and allow students to spend time in a natural environment. You don’t have to have a green thumb, or even much land, to start a school garden. What you do need is the support of the school community, including the administration, teachers, and the groundskeeper or head custodian.

Building Support

Before approaching administrators, it’s important to be able to articulate your goals for installing the garden, says Chrissa Carlson, the Food for Life educator at Hampstead Hill Academy, a charter school in Baltimore. Decide whether your goal is to teach nutrition or horticulture, to provide space for exploring nature, to get parents and the community engaged at school, or something else.

“Remember that a school’s number one job is to educate, so convince your administrator that the garden will do that,” Carlson advises. “Do your research: Look for curriculums that will help your garden serve as a space for learning. Find successful models in your city, town, or state, and figure out what resources they use, and how you can access similar resources in your community. Be ready to demonstrate that you’ve thought through the details of how you will create the space as well as how you will engage students in garden-based learning.”

It also helps to find a teacher who will champion the project. A teacher who is a master gardener came up with the idea for a garden at P.S. 107. A small team of parents then met with a teacher to talk about garden plans, says parent Jonathan Blumberg.

Parents also approached the school’s custodial engineer to find out if any regulations might prohibit a garden and to make sure it was in compliance with code, Blumberg says. With the school’s limited outdoor space, it was important that garden planters not block fire exits, windows, or manhole covers. Garden planners also made it clear that they weren’t asking the custodial staff to work in the garden.

The school garden at M. Clifford Miller Middle School in Lake Katrine, N.Y., was a joint project between the PTO and the school’s environmental club, which is sponsored by a science teacher. Before getting started, the gardeners had to get approval from the school’s building and grounds department, which made sure there were no gas lines or major pipes where they wanted to dig, says PTO volunteer Michelle Higgins.

Getting Started

The cost of a school garden depends largely on its size. It could start with some simple planters, soil, and seeds, which could run around $15 to $20 per classroom, depending on where you live and what you intend to plant that first year. If you plan to use raised garden beds or containers or to build a fence around the garden, you’ll need to spend more.

The P.S. 107 PTA has raised $11,000 in ma­terial and monetary grants since their school garden’s inception in 2008, and has held raffles to raise additional funds. “We have also received financial/material donations from parents and the community, discounts from vendors, and lots of free stuff that comes from searching community Listservs,” says Israel.

The Miller Middle School PTO received funds from a local extension agency and won a $5,000 grant from Lowe’s Toolbox for Education. “As a result, we have purchased tools, a shed, a greenhouse, wood for the garden beds, soil, and benches,” Higgins explains. The PTO plans small fundraisers each year to pay for plants and seeds.

It’s a good idea to seek the advice of a gardening expert before you plant. An expert can help you select good plants for your area and decide whether it’s best to plant in existing soil or use planters or raised garden beds. And be sure to get input from teachers at every step. They’re the ones who will be developing lesson plans for the garden.

At Hollywood Elementary in Stevensville, Mich., a large garden includes raised beds and several themed gardens. An ABC garden bed has a plant for each letter of the alphabet, says volunteer coordinator Julia Pechtel.

“[The] Peter Rabbit garden has items only mentioned in the story: carrots, cabbages, radishes, lettuce, etc.,” Pechtel says. The school also has a pizza garden, a garden with perennials that attract butterflies, and several varieties of herbs and fruits.

Tending the Garden

You also need to work out who will plant, weed, water, and do other important tasks in the garden. During the school year, students can tend to the garden after school or as a class activity.

Dianne Venetta, garden coordinator at an Orlando, Fla.-area Montessori school, says all students participate in the care of the school garden, from kindergarten through middle school. Middle schoolers did the more labor-intensive work of creating the garden. “Kindergartners mostly observe and join in the harvesting of vegetables, while lower and upper elementary weed, prune, harvest, and the like,” Venetta explains.

Volunteers also need to be lined up to care for the garden when school is not in session. Marcia Eames-Sheavly, a faculty member and youth program leader at Cornell University’s Garden-Based Learning Program in Ithaca, N.Y., recommends that PTO garden coordinators ask people to “adopt the garden” during the summer.

“Staff, faculty, families, [and] community members can sign up for a couple of days to a week over the summer months,” Eames-Sheavly says. Establish guidelines for volunteers and be sure to provide key information, like where the water source is located.

At Hampstead Hill, a meeting of summer volunteers is held each May. “A log book is kept in the shed for parents to document their visit, check off what they did, and leave notes for others,” Carlson explains. She visits the garden once a week and leaves notes for volunteers, if needed.

It takes time to grow a garden, but for many schools, the benefits make the work worthwhile. In addition to the academic lessons students can learn in a school garden, many develop a newfound taste for fresh fruits and vegetables they had a hand in growing. Children charged with caring for the garden develop a sense of responsibility. And at many schools, the time that students, parents, and staff members spend together watering and weeding helps build a strong sense of community.

Online Resources for School Gardening Projects

School Garden Weekly
A master gardener shares tips and instructional activities for school gardens.

School Garden Wizard
This site by the U.S. Botanic Garden and the Chicago Botanic Garden provides advice on planning, planting, and maintaining school gardens.
This site by the National Gardening Association has information on school gardens and curriculum as well as gardening grants.

Cornell University Garden-Based Learning
This site for teachers provides online curriculum guides and learning activities to try with students.

California School Garden Network
Much of the information on this site will apply to schools outside of California, such as research briefs on the benefits of school gardens and gardening tips.