The design of a youth garden is very different than that of a home landscape. At home, the landscape complements and adds to the aesthetic quality of your house. But beauty is not necessarily a good measure of success for youth gardens. More important are elements for hands-on learning and stimulating adventures to excite curiosity and inspire wonder. Designs should make room for young explorers to roam, with the expectation that there may be a few broken branches and picked flowers. Who cares if there are a few weeds or unkempt shrubs, as long as the children are engaged and connecting with their environment? Having some 'wild' space is actually good for a child's development!
Even though they're not manicured like other landscapes, it is still important to develop a garden design to guide you through installation of your youth garden. A little forethought and organization will help you create a space that is manageable — a key for overall sustainability of your garden program.
Landscape Design Basics
As you create a youth garden design keep these principles in mind at each step:
A youth garden should be functional and fun.
It's essential to integrate youth input to ensure their ownership of the garden; involve them in any of the following activities appropriate for your age group.
Incorporate sustainable practices.
Keep it simple!
Elements of a Sustainable Landscape
A sustainable landscape uses environmental and financial resources efficiently so it's easier to maintain over time. Proper planning and use of a design is the first step toward creating a sustainable landscape. There are also many ecological principles to consider, including water conservation, weed prevention, and plant hardiness. Here are some tips to help you plan for sustainability:
Use plants that have low water requirements, are well adapted to your environment, and have natural resistance to pests. Native plants are usually a good choice.
Avoid creating narrow grassy areas that are hard to mow. Odd-shaped mowing areas will frustrate maintenance staff and are hard to care for.
Include ground cover or mulch to manage erosion, evaporation, soil temperatures, and weeds.
Invest time preparing your soil so that it is appropriate for the plants you wish to grow. Healthy soil results in healthy plants, which means less maintenance!
Use organic methods to prevent and reduce pest problems (most schools do not allow for pesticide use in children's gardens).
Start small and grow the garden in step with your needs, funds, and participation by other educators and volunteers.
For additional information, visit the Sustainable Urban Landscape Series from the University of Minnesota.
The Design Process
Complete these six main steps to come up with a well-considered design for your garden.
Step 1. Conduct a Site Analysis
In this step you will make an inventory of existing features, summarize the site conditions, and brainstorm a list of needs.
Inventory of Existing Features
1. Start by sketching your garden space from a bird's eye view by outlining the property lines and all of the existing features (e.g., shrubs, sidewalks, fences) on a piece of blank paper.
2. Use a large tape measure to take accurate measurements of the site perimeter and each existing feature noted on your sketch. Record the information in the appropriate places on the site sketch.
3. Note the location of and distance to a water source.
4. Plot the location of existing plant materials and landscape beds. Identify and label the existing plants and make note of their approximate size (height and width).
5. Locate features you may not be able to see, including underground electricity, sewer, and water lines. You don't want to dig into or otherwise interfere with these lines! Contact school maintenance staff or utility companies for assistance.
Summarize Site Conditions
Next, take time to observe your space. Answer the following questions to get started. You'll refer to your summary in Step 6: Identifying a Plant List:
Does the soil appear to drain well, or is it hard and compacted?
Are there signs of drainage patterns or areas of poor drainage (e.g., standing water)?
Where is the sun? Use a compass to determine the cardinal directions -- east, west, north, and south -- and note it on your sketch. Southern and western exposures typically receive the most sunlight. What path will the sun take across the space?
Are there any trees or buildings that will shade the garden? If so, at what time and for how long?
Does the ground have any unusual dips? Determine the slope of the land. Do you need to take measures to prevent erosion?
What direction does the wind blow? Is there a steady wind across the site?
Are there any views you wish to block, such as a busy road or a dumpster?
Do you need to take measures to secure the site (e.g., with fencing)?
Create a Needs List
Carefully consider how you plan to use the space, and then translate that into landscaping needs. Here are some examples:
Do you plan to take large classes to the garden? If so, you'll need enough space for them complete their tasks, and possibly a sitting area for demonstrations or class discussions.
Will you plan to grow vegetables for a nutrition program, or hope to plant a butterfly habitat? The site must have 6 to 8 hours of full sun for these plants to thrive.
Must the garden be handicap accessible? If so, plan for wide, level pathways.
Step 2. Create a Base Map
By the time your site analysis is complete, your initial sketch of the area will probably be cluttered! That?s okay, because it's the 'draft' for creating a more orderly base map. On graph paper, use your measurements to create a correctly scaled drawing, including the property lines and existing structures and vegetation you plan to keep.
At the same time, summarize your needs list, observations, and other notes on one piece of paper for easy reference. Keep your original sketch just in case!
Step 3. Brainstorm Using Bubble Diagrams
Once you have a base map, it's time to brainstorm. Many landscape designers brainstorm by using bubble diagrams. These define open spaces using roughly drawn circles and squares rather than trying to determine specific sizes for the different areas. The advantage is that you can draw bubbles quickly, experimenting with different configurations, and can use different colors for clarity.
Start by placing a piece of tracing paper over your base map, or copy your map onto a transparent overhead sheet and lay another over it for sketching. On the second sheet, draw bubbles representing each component of your garden (beds, sitting areas, pathways). Try different arrangements (such as placing the sitting area in the center versus the side), shapes (circular beds versus rectangular beds), and sizes (i.e., a few large garden beds versus multiple small beds) until you develop a general idea of where you want to place the different components.
Step 4. Define Beds and Hardscapes
Now you can take it to another level of detail. Start by defining beds, walkways, and any other paved areas. Beds can be in ground or raised depending on your needs and soil condition. Decide which type of bed you prefer before deciding the shape, since materials available for raised beds can potentially restrict the shape and size. Next, draw in other hardscape elements and prominent features such as sitting areas, ponds, and patios.
Be sure to draw the plan to scale so that you don?t run into space problems later. Although you?ll need to leave room in the design for flexibility, hardscape items define the underlying structure of the garden and have more permanence than other features.
Step 5. Choose Types of Plant Materials
Now you can make some decisions about broad types of plant materials — shrubs, trees, perennials, vines, and annuals. At this stage you don't have to know the specific names of the plants, just the characteristics of plants you are looking for in terms of size, shape, growth habit, and so on. For example, maybe one bed is near an entrance and you want to plant something that blooms for everyone to enjoy. Perhaps another bed is in front of a poor view and should be planted with an evergreen hedge large enough in all dimensions to provide a screen. And maybe a sunny bed is destined for vegetables, and the sitting area needs a shade tree. You'll choose specific plants in the next step!
Step 6. Identify Your Plant List
Choose plants that can grow successfully in your region, that you can easily maintain, and that are blooming, growing, and fruiting at a time when kids are on site. Consult your Summary of Site Conditions for the space, light, and soil available on the site, and find plants with matching requirements. Use books and the Internet to find this information, or seek advice from garden center employees, plant nursery workers, or your the Cooperative Extension office.
You don't need sophisticated designs to build a successful youth garden, but creating a physical plan helps you organize your plans and communicate your to-do list. Just don't cast your plans in stone and remain open and flexible to spontaneous, creative suggestions from your young gardeners.
That being said, if yours is a large project, consider consulting a landscape designer. Many garden groups have found professionals — often a parent — willing to donate their time or provide services at a reduced rate. A designer can make sure you've considered all available options and potential problem areas, and help you move the design forward. It's very important to find someone who will involve the students and the garden team in the planning and design process.
Schoolyard Mosaics - NGA created Schoolyard Mosaics: Designing Gardens and Habitats in collaboration with educators who have engaged students in transforming schoolyards into wildlife habitats, square-foot gardens, multipurpose outdoor classrooms, and a variety of theme gardens. The book offers advice on involving students in the planning and design process, building community support, and integrating the project with your curriculum and learning goals. Also includes 11 garden plans -- from butterfly oases to history gardens -- with companion stories on each project, suggestions for implementing a variety of thematic gardens, and an extensive resource section. Beautiful color illustrations throughout. 56 pages.
Children's Garden Consultants - Cornell University's Garden-Based Learning team offers their guidelines and support materials for assembling and training a team of Children's Garden Consultants at their Garden-Based Learning Website. All program components, from planning through delivery, including all presentations and presentation templates, can be found at this site.