Planning for Sustainability, Part 3: Plants

Note: for the first two installments in this series, read People Make a Garden and The Next Phase: Place.

Once you have assembled the gardening team and involved the students (people), and determined what you have to work with at your site and what you want to be able to do in the learning garden (place), you are ready to confront the practical issues of creating the garden, which we will call plants as the third part of our 3-P's planning process. This is indeed a simplification, as plants are only one component of the overall garden development, but you get the idea.

In fact, the first step doesn't involve plants! You have considerable work to do to prepare the area for them. Through the visioning exercises you completed as part of the place segment of your planning process, you developed a plan of what features will go where in the space, and this plan now becomes the map for how to proceed.

Think in terms of working big to small, starting with major features and proceeding through the steps to planting details:

  1. Look at the overall layout of the site; does your plan show built structures like raised beds, arbors, or paths? Address these first, because they will define the space where you will ultimately place plants.
  2. Use your plan to help determine the scale of the space in real life. To lay out the built features, you'll need some materials to help you visualize how big a 4-foot-wide path or a 6-foot-long bench will be, such as:
    • a hose or piece of rope to lay out the curves of beds or pathways, and spray paint or ground limestone to mark their outlines
    • stakes and string to create straight lines
    • a tape measure
  3. Once this lay out process is done, walk around in the garden space with your "mocked-up" features and see what you think. Do the features feel like they are in the right place and about the right size? Do the curves flow and the paths move traffic through the space effectively? If anything looks or feels off, adjust it now, before you start building. Don't rush this process. Try living with the mock-up features for a few days before you begin construction. If you need to adjust them, doing so at this phase can save time, money and lots of aggravation later.

Constructed Elements

Handle any heavy construction first. Think creatively about how to accomplish these tasks, recruiting parents with carpentry skills or high school shop classes. Many features, such as arbors and even frames for raised beds, can be built elsewhere and then assembled and installed at the garden site.

If your plan calls for an arbor but it's not an option in your initial budget, leave room for it to be added later, keeping in mind you will need space to allow for installation among the existing plantings.

If you are building raised beds, carefully consider what materials to use. Old railroad ties and treated lumber may be low-cost and long lasting, but they can create hazards for children -- chemical-laden splinters or chemicals leaching into the garden soil. When working with children - and especially when growing food - it's best to be cautious and use untreated cedar or recycled plastic "lumber." These materials will cost a little more initially, but the long-term benefits are worth the investment.

Be practical about pathway materials. Stone (flagstone, slate, or pea gravel) and pavers (brick or stepping stones) are costly, and while they look wonderful, an inexpensive path of wood chips may work just fine for your garden and free up funds to use elsewhere. Spread layers of newspaper or breathable landscape on the path before applying the mulch to prevent weeds from becoming a maintenance headache. Once these construction tasks are done, you can move on to soil preparation.

Soil Prep

If there is one area where people tend to skimp in developing a garden, it is with their soil preparation. Yet, if there's one area where it truly pays to invest, it is in the soil. Most garden soils need some amendment with organic material to increase fertility and to balance drainage and moisture retention. A good general rule is to add a 3- to 4-inch layer of good compost over the beds and dig or till it into the top 8 to 10 inches of soil. If you have compost that you've made yourselves, use it! Otherwise, purchase compost by the cubic yard, which is most economical.

Hopefully you did some assessment of your soil during your site analysis phase, and have an idea of whether it is heavy (high percentage of fine clay particles) or light (high percentage of sand particles). Either type benefits from the addition of compost or humus. To fill raised beds, use a mix of approximately 60 percent soil to 40 percent compost. You can do this yourself, or purchase a "bedmix" (a blend of soil and compost) from a landscape supplier.

Again, think creatively about how to support the labor. For instance, most children will happily haul small buckets in a bucket brigade or roll wheelbarrows - that aren't too heavy - of compost. Create "digging teams" to help turn the soil and incorporate the compost with shovels if a rototiller isn't an option. Many hands make light work, and even if they only do a small patch of ground, children from multiple classrooms will get the job done - plus, they'll feel a true sense of accomplishment and have a great story to tell!


Once your built features are in place and the soil is prepared, it is finally time to address the plants. From balled-and-burlapped (B&B) trees to containers of perennials, it's crucial to transplant at the correct depth. Generally this means that means no deeper or more shallow than which they are growing in the ball or pot. The point at which the trunk or stem meets the soil is the guide to use. Younger children will need some supervision with this, as plants situated too deeply or too shallowly tend to struggle and sometimes die. It's not critical if plants are a little crooked or the spacing is off as the children do the installation, but planting depth is.

Again, the big to little rule applies, so plant larger trees or shrubs in the first wave. Because of the size and weight of these plants, you may need to recruit some adults help, but be sure to get students involved with digging and helping out. Several energetic students can dig the hole for a small tree, and they will always remember that they helped plant it.

Next, plant the mid-size to small shrubs, and have an adult guide the children on spacing and planting depth. Continue with the perennials (plants that live more than a year) and annuals (plants that live for just one growing season), matching the younger children with the smaller plant materials as you progress through the full range of garden installation. Finally, have everyone help mulch, water, and celebrate!

There are many references devoted to the almost endless range of plant choices, but let's start by reviewing some general guidelines especially for children's gardens.

  • Perhaps most important is to let the children select plants that interest and appeal to them whenever possible. It can be challenging for adults to let go of their aesthetic preconceptions of what looks "beautiful," but it must be done. I assure you, beauty happens anyway, so let the children plant hot pink next to bright orange, even if it isn't your choice for the color scheme.
  • Allow kids to exercise creativity and play with names as possible garden themes, like the Dragon Garden that kids at one school envisioned. They planted fireweed, snapdragons, smoke bush, burning bush, and red hot poker! Explore cultural themes like the Native American three sisters garden of beans, squash and corn, or planting all the ingredients for salsa.
  • Keep records so that if something doesn't work you'll know to try a different option next season.
  • Check the plants that are hardy in your geographic zone. Have students participate in this research. Investigate plants native to your region, as they are especially well adapted to your conditions.
  • Remember that there should be color and interest throughout the year, so select trees and shrubs with a range of flower types, foliage, branching habit, and bark textures as the "bones" of the garden scheme.
  • Choose a variety of seasonal highlights for your other plants, from spring-blooming bulbs to fall-blooming mums, asters, and ornamental grasses. It is especially nice to have lots of fall interest to welcome students and faculty back after summer vacation.
  • Include open areas that kids can plant with annual flowers or vegetable crops so they get to try something new each year.
  • It is my personal belief that every school or children's garden should grow at least some fruits and vegetables to allow students to see the whole plant life cycle from seed to harvest, and to provide a literal taste of the fruits of their labor. Too many of us are entirely disconnected from where our food comes from, and the simple act of growing a tomato or a squash contains many powerful lessons. Seeds can be sown directly in the garden, or planted on the classroom windowsill for more careful observation.
  • Remember that plants are pretty forgiving overall, and that the act of nurturing a little seedling or caring for that newly planted tree may well be the most valuable lesson taught in the garden.

Rory Klick's formal training is in horticulture, landscape architecture and biology, and she has worked in the nursery, design/build, public planning and environmental consulting fields over her 24 years of professional experience. For the past 7 years, she has specialized in school and community gardens, helping plan, construct and renovate over 150 sites in the Chicago area. As an educator and parent, Rory believes that children must be encouraged and empowered to be active members of their community, and to interact with nature in their daily lives.

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