A school garden is an outdoor classroom laboratory, attracting countless organisms, each a great opportunity to teach students about the complex and fascinating ecosystem that we are a part of. Gardening provides “on-site” opportunities for students to explore, create and inquire, even in the most resource-strapped schools. It is remarkable how quickly students establish connections with their schoolmates, with nature, and to their required school work by participating in planting seeds, turning compost, or examining butterflies. Both anecdotal and research-based evidence show that the use of an outdoor or indoor garden can improve science test scores, build positive character traits, motivate children to eat healthier foods, and develop an appreciation for the environment.
The school garden in many respects is very different from an indoor, self-contained laboratory, but it is still a laboratory with rules that are designed to keep all participants safe. School gardens are generally fun, healthy, and enjoyable environments. However, if there is one thing that can be continually emphasized throughout the year, it is the guidelines for keeping everyone (including the staff and volunteers) safe. It’s hard not to be alarmed when you think about twenty excited kindergarten students armed with sharp hand trowels, but also consider the more subtle safety concerns that are easily overlooked. If you haven’t created or already updated your safety checklist for the upcoming growing season, it’s time to make a list and check it twice!
Safety guidelines and common sense rules will help you avoid accidents. Here are a few areas of consideration when developing your garden rules.
Dangerous Plants: Toxins and Poisons
Plants are fun to grow, smell, or see, but some plants have toxins in them. Both indoor and outdoor plants can be dangerous. Many plants can make you sick if you eat them, but some can cause harmful effects just by touching your skin, like poison ivy or nettles. Poisonous plants can cause a variety of symptoms. They can irritate the skin, cause stomach distress, hallucinations, irregular heartbeats or seizures, and are potentially fatal.
Some plants are toxic only in large amounts while others may cause a serious problem with just one bite. Sometimes only part of a plant or flower is poisonous. For example, tulip flower petals are not poisonous, but their bulbs are toxic if eaten. And some plants are poisonous to pets but not to people. Some dangerous plants can look like plants that are good to eat too.
But it's easy to garden safely with a few simple rules:
- Never eat any plant, flower, berry, seed, nut or mushroom found in or on the ground unless you are sure of what it is and that it is edible.
- Adults caring for children should make sure they follow the above rule everywhere outside. Teach children to always ask a grown-up before eating any plant outdoors.
- Be diligent about removing poison ivy and poison oak from shady garden areas. Use thick rubber gloves to remove the entire plant. Do not place it in the compost pile and remember to wash the gloves with soap and water. The irritants in these plants can be transferred easily from the gloves to skin so be careful to avoid contact until they have been thoroughly washed.
- Adults should supervise young children when picking berries or veggies from the garden on their own. They may not be able to distinguish good ones from bad.
- Mushrooms can spring up overnight, and many toxic mushrooms look like ones that are good to eat. Pick up and throw away mushrooms right away to avoid dangerous mistakes.
- Leave chemicals, like insecticides, fertilizers and weed killers, in their original package, and NEVER move chemicals to an empty container or package from foods or drinks.
- Keep the phone number for your poison control center (1-800-222-1222) posted in your house, garage, or anywhere you keep chemicals. If someone might have been exposed to a poison, call right away for fast, expert help 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
- To check if a plant is toxic, bring a clipping to your local nursery for identification, or call your local poison control center for a list of local poisonous plants.
- If you have a pet, check with your veterinarian for a list of plants that can be poisonous for them.
What Plants Should I Avoid, What Should I Plant?
Now that I know about that some plants may be dangerous, what should I avoid?
There are several common indoor and outdoor plants that contain toxins, such as daffodil, English ivy, ficus, peace lily, lilies, amaryllis, rhododendron, and aloe vera. Teachers may want to keep house plants out of reach of very small children or conduct research to determine if their houseplants contain any toxins. You can find lists of poisonous plants in your area online, or by consulting a local garden center, county Extension office, and poison center (see Additional Information).
Similarly, fencing off a school garden is also a good idea for keeping neighborhood pets from potential dangers. Some dangerous plants for pets include: lilies, sago palm, tulip bulbs, azalea, oleander, castor bean, cyclamen, kalanchoe, yew, amaryllis, chrysanthemum, English ivy, peace lily, pothos, and schefflera.
Remember, a good rule of thumb is to only eat from parts of plants if you’re sure you know what they are and that they are edible. It can be tempting to turn students loose in the garden and let them explore with all of their senses, but remember that enforcing a simple garden policy of what can and cannot be tasted will keep everyone healthy and happy.
- 101 Kid-Friendly Plants: Fun Plants and Family Garden Projects. This book available from the National Gardening Association describes more than 100 plants that are safe to touch and eat as well as easy to grow.
- Cornell University maintains a poisonous plants information page which allows for a full description of plants and plant parts that are toxic or poisonous. The website also contains a searchable database, FAQs page, and resources for identifying the toxic agents and commonly affected species. The site is incredibly helpful in identifying plant species that may not be appropriate for a school garden.
- Poisonous Plants website available through the Department of Family and Consumer Sciences, North Carolina State University and North Carolina Cooperative Extension Service. A very comprehensive site with full plant descriptions and pictures.
- American Association of Poison Control Centers works to support the nation's 60 poison centers in their work. Poison centers are open 24 hours a day, seven days a week to assist callers in poison questions and concerns. The Poison Help hotline is 1-800-222-1222. More information is available on their website:
Outdoor Critters to Watch
Though some animals can help your garden, some others are better to avoid.
When you work outside, there’s always the chance for an unpleasant, painful encounter with animals such as snakes, spiders, ticks or insects, so it is always a good idea to check for these critters while working and before heading back into the school so they are not brought indoors accidentally. Students should learn to respect wildlife of all kinds and to observe with their eyes, not with their hands.
Make sure you look before you touch when working in woodpiles, sheds, or dark undisturbed areas. Spiders may make a home in these places. Making sure that students have gloves that fit properly will help to keep their hands safe from many unwanted encounters.
Though ants, bees, and caterpillars can be our friends in the garden, there are also some species that can be dangerous. Wasps and yellow jackets can sting. Some people are allergic to fire ants, and some caterpillars can also give you a painful injury from stinging hairs. Children may not be able to distinguish good from bad, so good advice for them is to “look but don’t touch” with insects in the garden and to tell an adult if they see a nest, hive, or mound where insects live.
If you are bit or stung, your poison center can provide immediate first-aid advice and suggestions for further care if needed.
Chemical and Pesticide Safety
Every school may have a different policy on the use of chemicals to either control problems or enhance the growth of the garden and whatever your choice, it will be important to establish a plan. Chemicals that can be found in things like pesticides, fertilizers, and weed killers can help us grow a beautiful garden, but they can also be dangerous if swallowed, if they come into contact with the skin or the eyes, or if inhaled.
Just because a label says the product is “organic” does not mean it is non-toxic , so treat these chemicals with the same cautions. Don’t spray pesticides or other chemicals when it is windy because those chemicals can get on your clothes and skin or be inhaled. Wash up thoroughly after handling pesticides, and launder clothes separately. If children want to dig in the garden, be sure it is not an area that has been treated with chemicals. Watch that they are not sampling the soil as they play because it may have other contaminants that would be harmful if eaten.
For garden safety, follow the before, during, after rule with fertilizers and pesticides:
- Before Use - Read the instructions. Wear the appropriate clothing to protect yourself. That may include safety goggles, gloves, or long sleeves and pants.
- During Use - Follow the instructions on the product. Never leave the product unattended.
- After Use - Put chemicals away safely out of sight and reach of young children and pets. Properly dispose of any unwanted containers.
Sun exposure is understood to be the major cause of skin cancer. It is extremely important to protect children and youth from over-exposure to sunlight. This caution is reinforced by the fact that up to 50 percent of an individual’s lifetime contact with sunshine occurs before adulthood. Sunburns are a visible sign of injury. Don’t wait to think about how to protect your students until after students are suffering from serious burns. Plan ahead. Use your parent volunteers to help get sunscreen applied before heading out into the garden.
- It is important for children to wear tightly woven, loose-fitting clothing that covers the body, even if they are not eager to do so. It can be difficult to avoid the strongest sun exposure (10AM-4PM) because of school day hours; encourage them to do it nevertheless and offer incentives for wearing wide-brimmed hats, sunglasses, and sunscreen.
- Apply sunscreen every two hours.
- Liberally apply sunscreen to exposed skin 15 minutes before venturing outdoors. Use a broad-spectrum (UVA and UVB) with an SPF factor of 30 or above.
Additional Safety Concerns:
- Teach tool safety from the beginning and meticulously enforce the rules. Help students to understand that using tools is a privilege. Model all appropriate behaviors.
- Always use fully-composted manure. NEVER use cat, dog or human feces as a source of fertilizer.
- Pressure-treated lumber, railroad ties, and wood soaked in creosote leach hazardous chemicals into the soil and are not suitable for garden use.
- If you use plant stakes (for tomatoes, cucumbers, etc.) make sure that the stakes are taller than the students. Never leave or cut stakes that are at eye level or low enough that a child could fall and become injured on a shorter stake.
- All garden soils in urban areas should be tested for lead before preparing the garden for planting.
- Review school procedures for fire, earthquake, and other safety measures. It is likely that a safety drill may occur during a gardening session. Create specific procedures for these drills and practice them with the students.
Defending your Garden
If you encounter administrators or parents concerned about garden safety, it’s important to explore their concerns fully. Emphasize the program’s benefits to the children and invite the concerned individuals or groups to work with you to resolve the safety issues. Don’t be afraid to ask local health and safety officials to help you establish written operating procedures for addressing these issues.
Thank you to the American Association of Poison Control Centers for their contributions to this article.