Planning Sustainable School Gardens: Part 2

By Rory Klick


I recommend opening with visioning sessions in individual classrooms, or in an open forum such as an after-school or community meeting. A facilitator should lead the session and keep a running list of everyone's ideas. Let the group know that, though all contributions are welcome, some may be modified or eliminated based on practical constraints. For example, I often tell students that we won't be able to have any large pools or fountains due to safety issues, but it's fine to suggest a small water feature, especially if the objective is to provide habitat. Invite teachers, parents, and community members to brainstorm ideas, too. Teachers might want space for an outdoor classroom or various beds to use for experiments. Parents might ask that part of the garden be devoted to use by very small children so they can bring younger siblings when they come to volunteer.

The ideas people generate will sift into different levels of detail: A wish to grow tulips is one level of detail, and having concerns about public safety is a much large issue, but all are relevant to forming the vision. Ask for a planning committee that is willing to take the ideas and develop an overall description. See if the brainstormed list can be organized into several garden zones.

For instance, if the visioning list includes the goals to teach history and geography, they might be united under the banner of a multi-cultural garden zone, which also could lead to discussions about ethnic and minority contributions to our culture and diet. Serving younger children may be accomplished through an area based on colors, shapes and senses.

Following the planning pattern of people, place, and plant care, the second major step is to determine place. In the realm of landscape architecture, this has several meanings. One is to discover the vision of those who will use the garden. For a school garden project, this means conducting visioning exercises with those involved in the garden project: Finding out how teachers will use it, how students actively will participate, and how the community will be welcomed. This can help the group set the goals and mission of the project.

Another meaning to determining place is to understand the neighborhood context and features of the intended garden site. The formal process of assessing these issues is called site analysis, and will help determine where the actual garden will be located within the campus or neighborhood, and what physical constraints it will face.

Yet a third dimension to the notion of determining place is actually developing a garden design that illustrates where features will located and how will they be built. This is usually done through the development of a plan drawing that shows the garden from a birds-eye view at a certain scale.

So the process of determining place involves visioning, site analysis and design. This sounds pretty straightforward, right? It is, as long as you remember the discussion from Part 1 about ownership leading to stewardship, and stewardship leading to sustainability, which means that involving the children is crucial to every phase of the process. Thus, the absolute caveat: their ideas must guide the overall project. If you tell students, Here is where we're going to have a vegetable garden, what is left for them to envision? If you ask students, What kinds of garden spaces would help you learn more about food and nutrition? you have presented a whole different level of interaction. Now students must investigate what kinds of food plants they can grow in their region, what environmental conditions those plants need to grow, what connections those foods then have to their diets, and so on.

"Place" Activities

Site Analysis
Have students go outside and explore their surroundings. Organize teams to investigate certain parameters like size, soil type and drainage, light exposure, traffic flow (vehicular and pedestrian), water (standing, flowing, and source for irrigating plantings), and history [how do they get that from observation?]. Have the teams develop maps of their research, all using the same scale. Choose a simple scale like 1/8 or 1/4 inch for each foot so they can use a regular ruler and graph paper with corresponding scale. This will help students visualize the scale as they draw. Have each team transfer their drawings to tracing paper, and compile them into an overall site analysis by stacking the traced drawings. Ask students to discuss how the layers combine, and what additional information they derive from considering all the layers together rather than separately.

Visioning in 3-D
Editor's Note: I have done this exercise with ages 3rd grade through college - it's very flexible and can be as sophisticated as the students make it.

Have students develop models of their garden vision in small groups. Provide copier paper box tops or cafeteria trays for each team of 3 to 5 students. Assemble small containers of soil, fine gravel, and mulch for them to use in developing their models. (If you can't gather these outdoors, ask for a bucket of each from the local nursery; chances are that when you tell them what it's for they won't charge you for such a small quantity.) Ask students to gather small twigs, leaves and various plant parts to use as vegetation models. Have some popsicle sticks, straws, cardboard, construction paper and a bit of modeling clay available to help make additional features. Turn the students loose with a couple simple rules: 1) Each team member gets an equal voice in what is developed, and 2) Keep all the materials on the materials table or in their model boxes - not all over the classroom!

This exercise will have more impact if you first take a fieldtrip to a local park, botanic garden or arboretum. Have students take notes about features and plants they like so they can incorporate them into their models.

Have each team present their final product to the rest of the class, explaining the rationale for their design and why they think it would fulfill the specifications and needs stated in the school garden plan. Again, require each member of the team to contribute so all can practice public speaking.

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.

Site Analysis

Next, have students conduct a site analysis. They can analyze the whole campus in order to help determine where the garden might best fit. I think it's best if students can be involved in helping determine the location, but if there is only one available space, at least have them assess the space to develop a base map. This is simply a drawing that shows how big the space is and where existing features are located. Here are some examples of the kinds of things students should note for the creation of the base map:

  • Are there sidewalks or fences that should be measured and drawn in?
  • Are there trees that cast shade? At what times of day/during what season?
  • What is the soil like? Are there areas that are poorly drained?
  • Where is the spigot for the garden hose?
  • How do people use the space now? If the proposed garden space is near a play area or high-traffic zone, will people run through the garden?

Have students consider what else they should investigate to truly understand their site. Ask them to also consider the surrounding neighborhood and what effects it has on the garden site, and vice versa.

Create a Design Plan

Finally, use the information from the visioning exercise and the site analysis to develop a conceptual garden design. Start simply, just drawing big "bubbles" on top of the base map to show the different garden zones being proposed. For example, your food production area may be a large bubble in the sunny zone, while the habitat area occupies a more linear space along the building where there is shade from existing trees. Keep refining this concept to include more detail, like paths and places to sit. An easy way to do this is by laying pieces of tracing paper over the original base map. Another approach is to make copies of the base map and ask students to each come up with a possible design. Classes can then critique the plans and develop a final version using their favorite ideas from many plans.

The next phase is to look critically at the design and determine how it can be constructed. If the soil or drainage is poor, you may have to build raised beds to grow food plants. If paths are desired, will less expensive mulch suffice, or is it worth the investment to use gravel or flagstone? Find out if there are parents with design or construction experience who are willing to donate time to help. But don't worry if there aren't such resources - you'll be amazed at what students can do! Be sure to get student input about construction materials and approaches. I have seen students adamant about having real benches who subsequently have taken it upon themselves to raise money and/or help build them to have what they really wanted. Students will gladly haul soil, compost and mulch - hard physical labor - to help achieve their vision. But it must be their vision.

To determine construction methods, look at landscaping books and magazines to see how others have built various features. Once the design and the construction approach are determined, you can start to calculate the kind and quantity of materials needed. A local landscape company or nursery may be happy to help with this for little or no fee for the sake of community involvement. You then can start the process of raising funds and securing in-kind donations to build the garden. Many schools seem to struggle with the fundraising phase, but having a defined plan and list of needs makes it much easier, for both fundraisers and donors. Potential supporters can see you are committed and have a plan that was developed with lots of student and community input.

I recommend that you plan comprehensively for the whole garden, but start implementation with one area. Create the habitat zone or the food production area the first season, and meanwhile build support for other zones. However, if students have worked hard on planning, be sure to do at least some construction during that school year as a reward. They need to see at least some of the vision come to life, and everyone should have the benefit of putting at least one plant in the ground.

And once plants are in the ground, you'll need to maintain them. The concluding part of this series, "Plant Care" covers this topic./p>

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