By Mary Beth Bennett, Extension Agent and Associate Professor, WVU Berkeley County Office
In order to start a school garden program Keep it simple. Have fun but don’t overdo it when you get started. Use teachable moments. Include teachers, students and interested parties in the planning process.
Some of the keys to a successful school garden program are:
Find a cooperating teacher, school, and principal. Note** The teacher can be the teacher of your child or a relative or someone who has identified themselves as having an interest in developing a school garden. If possible find a school that has a nature area or a garden already established.
Getting School administrator and/or Board of Education support. Do not forget the maintenance crew. Many a school garden has been mowed down because the maintenance crew was not brought into the garden process.
Having a location or garden space – Inside and/or Outside. Garden space outside is nice if it is available, but not necessary. Containers work well in classrooms and schools if an outside garden isn’t possible. Outside gardening is also limited to weather that is suitable for working in the garden and for students.
Use recyclables as much as and whenever possible. I’ve used everything from baby food jars and milk cartons to 2 liter soda bottles and licorice containers.
Keep activities inexpensive for teachers – they will try to duplicate your efforts later and need to be able to do so at a minimum cost.
Get local businesses to support the program – Seed and Bulb sellers are glad to give you items that may be past the selling stage but still be viable to work with (you can even do germination studies with them).
Conduct hands on activities – make the activity very hands on. (I try to have at least one activity per week where the students are involved in handling plants or doing a related activity.)
Teach the appropriate grade level material – gear the lesson towards the student’s grade/age. Sometimes the students will surprise you. (Sometimes the teacher will be the one learning the most from you.) Remember- There is no such thing as a stupid question—Chances are that if somebody is brave enough to ask the question there are others who want to know the same thing but are afraid to ask. Do not assume anything when it comes to teaching.
The sky is the limit when it comes to working with plants. You can teach almost any subject using plants such as History, Geography, Reading, Writing, Spelling, Science (Botany, Entomology, Agronomy, etc.)
Always be on the lookout for groups that can help out, whether it be with funds or materials you can use. I’ve found that people are more willing to donate things for compost and materials for basket making or wreaths. DO NOT BE AFRAID TO NETWORK WITH PEOPLE!!!!!!!!! I’ve had more success with our program because people like to help one another out. DON’T BE AFRAID TO ASK! Many people will say “I would help, but I’ve never been asked.”
Consider various types of gardens to fit your needs. I’ve found that a vegetable garden is hard to keep going over the summer if there isn’t a summer program being conducted at the school. Check to see if there is summer school of some sort at the school and if the students there could help with the garden. We found that our County Parks and Recreation had a summer program that parents were willing to pay to have their children in You might consider a Butterfly garden or wildflower garden so that you don’t have to spend a lot of time weeding and taking care of it during the summer. I like using a Lasagna bed developed like a Square foot garden – A raised bed that I do not dig but build on top the grass. The Lasagna method lets you compost right in the bed. The square foot method also makes a real good math lesson.
Included are some websites and resource materials that may provide you with additional resources to help you address your individual needs when it comes to working with children.
Garden Mosaics (Cornell University) http://communitygardennews.org/gardenmosaics/
Gardens for Learning (California) http://www.cfaitc.org/gardensforlearning/
Gardening for Grades (Florida) http://www.flagintheclassroom.com/gardening.html
Roots & Shoots http://www.rootsandshoots.org/
Botany on Your Plate: Investigating the Plants We Eat, By Berrett, Katharine D, White, Jennifer,M and Manoux, Christine. 2008 The Regents of the University of California. Published by the University of California and the National Gardening Association. ISBN – 13: 978-0-915873-49-4. Cost $21.95
Nourishing Choices: Implementing Food Education in Classrooms, Cafeterias, and Schoolyards. Pranis, Eve. 2008 The National Gardening Association. ISBN- 13: 978-0-915873-51-7. Cost $21.95
Mary Beth Bennett has been the Agriculture and Natural Resource Extension Agent in Berkeley County, West Virginia for 19 years. She works in all areas of agriculture including the Master Gardener program. But her love is agricultural literacy, helping people understand where their food and fiber come from. She taught the first group of West Virginia teachers about Agriculture in the Classroom. Mary Beth also enjoys working with people and traveled as a Peace Corps Volunteer to Brazil and with the Agency for International Development in Africa. She grew up on a dairy farm, helping raise calve and in the family garden.