Youth gardens are as distinctive as the people who create and enjoy them. Ideally, they're created to meet local program needs, and use the physical site and available resources to their fullest. Read more about youth gardening. Though each is unique, the steps required to put together a successful and sustainable program are the same. They include:
- Building the Case »
- Gathering Support »
- Planning the Program »
- Designing the Garden »
- Searching for Resources »
- Digging In »
- Maintaining and Sustaining the Garden »
To rally support from administrators, teachers, volunteers, and funders, you need to build your case. Why do you need a garden? How will it benefit the youth in your community? Point to research-based evidence and anecdotes that illustrate how the hands-on nature of gardening can enrich the curriculum, will improve students' interest in learning, encourage them to eat well, and develop social skills. Introducing children to gardening instills a life-long passion for plants and respect for the environment.
- build an understanding of and respect for nature and our environment
- motivate kids to eat and love fruits and vegetables
- provide opportunities for hands-on learning, inquiry, observation and experimentation
- promote physical activity and quality outdoor experiences
- teach kids to nurture and care for other living things while developing patience
Additional Information on Building the Case:
- Why Youth Gardens? »
- About School Gardening »
- What Have Plants Done for You Lately? »
- Research Supporting Garden-Based Learning from CSGN »
Next you need to answer, "Who will you involve in your garden program?" The answer is, "Everyone!"
- Involve the children in every step along the way. Educators across the country report that when students are involved in all stages of the process, they are more invested in the project's success, and are inspired to care for and respect their gardens.
- Obtain buy-in from administrators. Make sure you have solid investment from the top down. Supportive administrators can provide valuable help in finding the time and resources needed for a successful garden project.
- Recruit parents, staff and community volunteers for a garden team. Many hands are needed to ensure a successful, sustainable garden program.
- Creating a team or committee that is actively involved results in the best garden plan possible, and it broadens your reach into the community for resources, adds extra hands for installation, helps prevent volunteer burnout during maintenance, and ensures long-term sustainability.
Additional Information on Gathering Support:
Planning the Program
"What" comes next. What will your garden accomplish? Although it is tempting to start drawing up landscape plans once a gardening committee is organized, it is important not to skip the step of determining how you will use the completed garden. Each program should have defined goals and objectives. It is hard to chart a path without knowing where you want to end up. To have the most impact, school gardens should be integrated into the curriculum, and community gardens should be crafted to meet local needs. A purposeful garden will be a worthwhile and long-lasting garden.
Finally, it is time to design the garden. A very important tip: Plan big, but start small. A large project can exhaust the enthusiasm of your students and volunteers. Let them get excited about the success of a bountiful, enjoyable, small garden, then expand as your confidence and experience increases.
There are many different design options depending on the space and time you have. A traditional outdoor garden is planted in the ground. Unless the area has been cultivated before, you will need a tiller to break the compacted soil before you begin planting.
Another common option is to use raised beds. These are framed structures, typically 9 inches (on soil) to 2 feet (on paved surfaces), made of rot-resistant wood (like cedar), concrete blocks, or recycled plastic planking and filled with soil. Although they require more initial investment than a traditional in-ground garden, the benefits of raised beds pay off in the long run: they're easier to cultivate; you don't have to worry about toxins in the soil, such as lead; there are fewer weed and drainage problems; and the raised soil and plants are protected from crushing footsteps. Plus, design is flexible -- you can build them to be handicap accessible, and to fit the space available, whatever the shape or size. For more information about raised beds, check out Making a Raised Bed Garden
Another outdoor option is to plant in containers. Typically, garden containers are pots and troughs made of clay, plastic, or wood, but plants aren't fussy -- they'll grow in anything that holds soil and has drainage holes. Experiment with whatever is at hand, from discarded 5-gallon buckets to an old bathtub! Window boxes and hanging baskets are great if you have little or no ground space.
By adding handles or wheels, or placing containers on wheeled platforms, you can make your garden mobile, and can move plants around the space to where they'll grow best as the season advances or as conditions change (e.g., the angle of the sun shifts slightly each day). If threat of vandalism is extreme, you can move containers to sheltered or locked area.
No room outside? Try an indoor garden. This is a good option for schools/youth organizations in areas where winters are long growing seasons are short. The simplest form of indoor gardening is to place plants in front of windows that receive a decent amount of light. Windows that face south and west are best they usually receive enough light to grow leaf and root vegetables (beets, carrots, lettuce, onions, and radishes) and herbs. East- and north-facing windows do not receive as much light, and are a good place for houseplants. Spend a few days monitoring your window space to determine how much light is available for an indoor garden.
Grow lights designed to hang low over growing areas are a more effective way to produce indoor crops. You can purchase GrowLabs® or you can make your own. With grow lights, you can control the amount of light your plants receive and can expand your crop options to fruit crops like tomatoes and strawberries.
Once you have selected what type of garden you want to plant, it's time to focus on designing your space. Remember these key things:
- a children's garden should be fun and functional
- incorporate sustainable practices
- keep it simple
Focusing on these concepts will help you create a useful and successful design. Extensive design details are available at:
Searching for Resources
Finding the resources you need to begin and maintain a children's garden is always a challenge, but it doesn't need to be a roadblock. Think of your funding search as an opportunity to allow other community members to participate in an extraordinary youth program. You can find donations, apply for grants, host fundraisers, start a youth garden business -- get together with your committee and the kids and get creative! Think of it as a search for people and organizations that can share in your success. To start your brainstorming, check out:
- NGA Grant Opportunities »
- A Wealth of Wisdom: Funding School Garden Projects »
- Strategies for a Growing Business »
It's time to get your hands dirty and work up a sweat! Although the installation processes vary greatly with each design, typically this stage requires you to address:
- weed and grass removal
- soil preparation, including bringing in soil or amending existing soil
- planting of seeds or plants
- how to facilitate basic maintenance including watering, weeding, mulching, and harvesting
It's vitally important to have a dedicated group of parent and community volunteers to help you with garden installation and maintenance. A small adult-to-child ratio ensures a safe experience that provides kids with the most opportunities to contribute.
Here we need to emphasize the importance of good soil preparation. Ask any farmer or gardener -- they'll tell you that the most important step in the planting process is preparing the soil. Soil rich in organic matter that drains well produces healthy plants that are more resistant to pest and disease problems. For more horticultural help check out Garden.org and Planning Sustainable School Gardens, Part 3: Plants (and more)
Why think about maintenance and sustainability in the planning stages? Youth gardens are a significant investment of time, energy, and resources so you want them to last beyond one growing season! Make plans for maintenance before there is a garden to maintain. Consider long-term costs and volunteer recruitment before you put your first plant in the ground.
Additional Information on Maintaining and Sustaining the Garden:
This may seem like a lot of detail, but don't let it overwhelm you. Just remember that it's better to know up front what you need to prepare for than to be blindsided. And you don't need to know all the answers up front -- you'll learn as you go, and the children, especially, will benefit greatly from your shared educational journey. Remember, if you're new to this, start with a small container garden and expand as your teams' confidence and excitement grows. Dig in and be ready to experience the joys of gardening!
For More Information
Three excellent, comprehensive resources for more information about starting a garden program include:
Steps to a Bountiful Kids Garden - This National Gardening Association publication is an information-packed how-to guide contains all you need to know to launch and sustain a school or community kids' gardening program.
Gardens for Learning - The National Gardening Association collaborated with the California School Garden Network to develop the book Gardens for Learning which provides very detailed instructions about how to create and maintain a sustainable youth garden program. The book can be downloaded as a pdf for free.
The School Garden Wizard - An informative Web site for new and existing youth gardens from The Chicago Botanic Garden and the US Botanic Garden.