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:
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.
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.
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.