Planning Sustainable School Gardens: People

Build a Team

Behind every successful school garden is an inclusive team. Six to 12 people seems to be a magic number for getting things done; more is fine as long as you have a strong communication system. These garden teams can include faculty, administrators, parents, teachers' aides, and interested neighbors.

Administrators can make or break a school garden project, so be sure to convince your principal. Will they fully support the full project - not just the physical space and its use by classrooms, but the integration of garden-based curriculum and the necessary teacher training? If they are reluctant, remind them how powerful hands-on learning experiences are for non-traditional learners.

Don't think you're the only one on the faculty who is interested in a school garden. Sometimes the simple act of inquiring if someone would be interested in participating is enough. Tell them you value their input. Ask teachers of every age level and specialty. If they seem reluctant, remind them how powerful hands-on learning experiences are for non-traditional learners. Yes, I repeat myself to make a point - high achievers will enjoy the experience of a school garden, but children who can be challenging in the classroom often excel in the garden.

Have you to solicit support from parents, neighbors, garden clubs, and Master Gardeners (volunteers trained by state university extension offices)? Parents who enjoy gardening and neighbors with great gardens are the folks to target. People with green thumbs tend to be enthusiastic about sharing their passion with others. They are your best resources for communicating the concept and benefits of school gardening.

The Kids Have to Own It

So, you've assembled your garden team and have official blessing of the principal-now what? Oh, yes, the children - of course! No school garden should be developed without active participation from as many students as possible. I am emphatic about this portion of the planning. If you believe that somehow the teachers and/or parents will know best, I can assure you that you have fallen into one of the most common pitfalls of being a grown-up.

You can certainly establish boundaries (e.g., We're going to consider what might go into a garden to grow food) but leave as many of the details as possible for the children to define. They ask to grow oranges and bananas in Chicago? Talk about why this isn't typically done, and ask for them to figure out how they might do it anyway.

The bottom line is that no matter how well you plan and how beautiful a place you create, if the garden is not kid-generated, then kids will lack ownership. If kids lack ownership, they will lack a sense of stewardship. Sustainability requires stewardship. If the garden is to be used, respected and cared for, then stewardship is the key.

The act of building a garden means that you are ultimately relying on ethics. All ethics, to paraphrase the great conservationist Aldo Leopold, rely on the premise that an individual is a member of a larger community. Instinct prompts an individual to compete, but ethics prompts him to cooperate. Leopold goes on to define the "land ethic" as the simple idea of extending the notion of community to include the soil, water, plants, animals, and so on.

Ok, ok, this is sounding too deep! All you wanted to do is plant a couple tomatoes, maybe a few salad greens with your kids, and I'm talking about ethics. Please, bear with me, because this is another key contribution a school garden can make. Where do children learn how to treat the rest of the community - be it the rest of the student body or the world around them? What lessons are contained within the simple act of planting a seed and nurturing a seedling to maturity? When do children have the opportunity to create a visible product that garners adult respect? When do children have the opportunity to be part of something that is both ephemeral and permanent ? that evolves over time and may well still exist to show their own children?

You can see where this line of thought is heading. The act of creating a school garden is a deep concept in the world of educational pedagogy. We consider a library an essential tool for our children, and we would never consider having a school without a library or resource room. The same can be said for a computer lab. To not have these facilities would mean we are not adequately preparing our children with the skills they will need to be successful in life. I have no reservations about preaching this gospel: We must start to consider the life lessons of the school garden at the same level of basic educational necessity for our children as reading and computer literacy.

If you can convey the conviction and rationale as described above, then you will recruit a committed team. If you understand that school gardens are not "build-it-and-they-will-come' endeavors, but must be kid-generated in order to be kid-owned, then you will have built a network of garden stewards who will not let any ill befall their garden. Over my years of working with schools, I have witnessed many less-than-ideal sites become beautiful gardens. The foundation of success is not necessarily in proper construction or sound plant selection - although these are important dimensions to be covered in the next two articles. Successful school gardens are built on the foundation of committed people.

Whatever the status of your garden - new or neglected - you need to develop a garden team and involve the students. Winter is the ideal time for gathering this support. Take a class to a garden center or botanic garden. Check out online resources, and present your ideas at a faculty meeting. Send recruitment letters home with students. Go local and ask neighbors and neighborhood businesses to support the idea - with time and expertise, or with funding or in-kind donations of materials. If you can show folks a specific plan, you'll be more successful in recruiting support. Which brings us to our next topic - place. For purposes of this discussion, "place" encompasses the mechanics of choosing the location of the garden on the school grounds, assessing what you have, designing what you want, and figuring out how to construct it.

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