Transforming Schoolyards

By National Gardening Association Editors

You're ready to start raising funds and recruiting volunteers for your school garden project, and you need just one more thing to get you rolling: to hear the encouraging voices of peers who have succeeded. After all, if they could do it, so can you! Here are a few vignettes from teachers in our gardening network. We hope they'll inspire ideas for tapping in to local sources of funds and support.

Piecing it Together: A Medley of Methods

Pam Chamblin, a teacher and Gardening Committee member at the Poquoson (VA) Elementary School writes, "Don't try to do it all by yourself. The more people and classes involved in planning and gardening, the better it will be." The committee launched the school's gardens and habitats with grants from the school board, and also found enthusiastic support from the area food bank. "Their gardening coordinator helped with planning, provided instruction and seeds, and joined us on a field trip to Tuckahoe Elementary in Arlington, VA, to see their garden." When the spring workday was scheduled, they recruited volunteers via the school newsletter. "Parents, teachers, administrators, and elementary and high school students came out to help build our new beds, put in bird feeders, plant, and weed. That afternoon at our celebration, the food bank provided our meal." Thanks to all of the enthusiasm and commitment demonstrated by the school and community, the PTO has adopted the school gardens as their project. "They'll help us with money, materials, and people power for our fall and spring gardening days. We have a parent coordinator this year, too."

Many garden projects depend on small gifts from myriad places. Debra Tate-Anderson, art teacher for Strodes Mills Middle School in Lewistown, PA, has pieced together donations, funding, and volunteer efforts like a colorful quilt. Like many garden coordinators, she anted up first. "I offered teachers life-sized, acrylic painted, cardboard portraits and collected over $100 for the garden. The teachers post their look-a-likes outside their classrooms." She welcomed plant donations from parents, teachers, staff, and community members, which filled their 3,000 square foot garden in no time. "Simply letting people know what we are doing continues to bring plenty of free plants." A grant from a local organization yielded $350 for materials to construct picnic tables; the county vocational students built the tables for free. An Eagle Scout has offered to build a grape arbor, at his expense. The local garden club planted a dogwood tree for the school's Arbor Day celebration and recently obtained 70 trees for the school via a grant.

"I was first inspired to have the kids turn our enclosed courtyard into a garden and habitat when I attended the Children's Garden Symposium a few years back," says Joanne Bauer, third grade teacher at Lower Southampton (PA) Elementary School. Knowing that a schoolyard transformation would require lots of allies, Joanne took PTA president with her the following year. This strategy helped open the PTA's eyes to the possibilities, and they established a "habitat account" to provide funds for plants and new projects. Staff members wrote and received grants from the school district, local and national educational organizations, and Ames department stores.

Student entrepreneurs also took the initiative. They held bake sales, sold daffodil bulbs, and created and marketed first-aid kits and "Habitat Hannah" dolls (with clothing make from flowers and seed packets). Parents and local businesses have donated and discounted plants and other materials. "As businesses have seen the school's commitment to the project, it has become much easier to solicit donations," Joanne explains. "We have found that the more you document your progress and the more you can show what you have accomplished, people are more willing to help you with what you need. It is important to show that you have made a serious commitment to completing and maintaining the project."

Businesses Act Locally

"The Internet is a great source for locating grants," notes Mary Thomas, a parent volunteer at Joyner Elementary School in Tupelo, MS, "but yours is one of thousands of applications. Try your local businesses and government agencies first. It took me over a year of letter writing and grant writing, as well as personal visits, but I was able to raise over $30,000 for our outdoor environmental center. It took a lot of determination and time, but we now have a great outdoor classroom that the district could not otherwise afford." She emphasizes the importance of community businesses as invested partners. "You would be surprised how many local stores and businesses right in your community set aside funds for nonprofit groups, and they love putting their money toward education," explains Mary. "Approach chain stores and government agencies. Our local newspaper gave $2,000 and a regional power company donated $3,000. Nurseries, garden clubs, as even industrial companies were very generous."

Mary recommends thinking beyond dollars to potential in-kind donations. "A bell tower is part of our center, so we approached a local architectural firm for help. They agreed to design the structure. We then visited a steel manufacturer, and they donated materials and built our tower's frame. Another firm gave us a discount on concrete for our sidewalks and tower platform, and a local contractor allowed us to charge bricks to his account. The bricklayer was so impressed with our garden and how it was being utilized, he donated $200 of his fee back to our project."

Nancy Sklavos-Gillett of Mount Olive High School in Flanders, NJ, corroborates Mary's assessment. "Though locating funding is probably the single most difficult aspect of creating a schoolyard habitat, many community businesses will provide donations of either tools/materials or gift certificates. Large chain stores such as Wal-Mart, Home Depot, and Lowe's are good places to start, but smaller businesses are also willing to help. Approaching them with information on the project and politely requesting donations generally reaps positive results. A sense of humor helps tremendously, too."

Budding Business Nets Profit

In schools throughout the country, students are using their gardening savvy as a springboard for green business ventures. Dedicated volunteers and creative partnerships with businesses promote project sustainability, reports Judy Sims of Monte Vista Elementary School in Santa Barbara, CA. Her school's garden, started with funds from a garden-supported nutrition initiative, lead to an entrepreneurial farmer's market project. Thanks to dedicated volunteers and local farmers, the market is going strong. "Our Farmer's Market program is only as good as the person's running it," says Judy. "Without [volunteer] Grandma Elizabeth, it wouldn't be sustainable. The fresh, organic produce, nursery-grown plants, and flowers, all sold to us at wholesale, make it a truly viable venture. While our garden does offer some produce depending on the season, we certainly rely on other sources to have regular and varied offerings." The students deposit their revenue in a checking account donated by the local bank. They use their profit to buy plants for the garden and nature trail, fund field trips to local farms, and supply more food for their healthy snack program. And they've enjoy the rewards of being on the giving end, too, by donating money to environmental education causes. (Read about this project and others in the Growing a School Garden Business section of our Thematic Explorations Library.)

Student Enthusiasm Fills Coffers

"Our Global Outdoor Classroom, representing Asia, North America, and Europe was designed and built by students," says Judy Miller, a retired teacher and current garden volunteer in Appleton, WI. "Our garden club of 20 to 30 students meets weekly to maintain the area. We have received no funding from the city or school district, but have received donations of cash and plants from the community. We've raised money via grants and by selling T-shirts, flower bulbs, and cinnamon rolls, but our greatest pleasure is our plant sale in May. All winter and spring, students start vegetable and flower seedlings and propagate donated houseplants to sell to other students and their families. They love it."

What do you do when an unbudgeted expense crops up? Dawn Bradley, garden coordinator at Tomahawk Elementary in Overland Park, Kansas, put out a call to the school community. "We needed a new pump for our pond, but had no funds. We sent out a newsletter to all of the students and families in our neighborhood informing them that we were having a 'Pennies for the Pond' fundraiser. I placed 5-gallon water bottles all over the school, and asked that the children bring their loose change. We raised $425 in two weeks - enough to replace the pump with some left over for the garden fund. The fundraiser was a good experience for the children. They loved watching money appear in the bottles."

Jayne Devencenzi is a school counselor who gardens with emotionally disturbed students in the San Luis (CA) Coastal Unified School District. Like other school gardeners, Jayne is grateful for the support of the community. "We have depended on the hospitality of local businesses to keep our gardens growing. They have donated compost, wood chips, and hundreds of seedlings." But the students are also interested in helping themselves. "When the elementary class needed a wheelbarrow, they brainstormed ways to raise the money, and decided to sell cuttings of our scented geraniums at a local botanical garden festival. When my middle school and high school classes heard about the need, they volunteered to build birdhouses to sell, and donated the money to the cause. Ultimately, we raised enough money to buy a wheelbarrow and many other needed tools."

Jayne adds, "As the success of our gardening projects grows, so does the support for them. I now have volunteers who come to help work in the gardens. It's a win-win situation: The students get to work with garden mentors, friendships are formed, flowers bloom, vegetables are raised, and all the while hearts are being healed."

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