Developing A School Garden From Somone Who Has!

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If you’ve explored my website,  you’ve already seen the school garden I developed and maintained (with the help of many community partners and school staff) at an urban elementary school in Dayton, Ohio.   In developing this garden and helping to provide natural experiences for the students there, I was very honored and surprised to win a national award from the Garden Club of America, and a Civic Improvement Commendation from the Garden Club of Dayton.  In March of that same year, I also received a lifetime achievement award through Five Rivers Metro Parks, who had granted me Green Schoolyard status and supported me throughout the process.  Lots of  time, hard work, planning and mistakes went into this garden, so I wanted to provide you with some information, to make things easier for you in developing your own school (or even personal) garden spot.  

  1. Make a plan– look at your space, take soil samples, draw out where you want beds, how much sun your area gets and for how long, where you might put natural prairie areas, learning areas, water features, etc.  Talk with the children about what they would like to have in their garden.  Some of their responses might surprise you…One of my students wanted a fishing pond—which would have been wonderful! 
  2.  Get support from your school administration, teachers, students, custodian, lunchroom staff (they’re great for helping with compost!), grounds and maintenance personnel, etc.  We held several meetings with all the interested parties to make sure we had their support and got lots of good ideas from them.  I was very blessed that my principal was on board for everything we did in the garden because he felt it was vitally important for our students to have a natural learning area. 
  3.  Find community support.  These folks will be so important to help you carry out your vision…They will come through for you with donating items, monies, volunteer time, helping with fundraisers, and so much more.  As you may have seen on our projects page, we were able to do lots of wonderful activities with our students because of the help and support of our community partners.  Don’t forget about your parents…they are invaluable for developing support for your garden.  Think about who’s going to water your garden over the summer months-maybe a parent who lives close to the school? 
  4. Plan your garden out in phases. Otherwise,  it is easy to get overwhelmed.  Remember, Rome wasn’t built in a day….Think about what you want in your garden and how to lay it out, how much money you have to spend, and who is going to help with the work. That’s your starting point.   Our garden was created in 3 different phases.  The first was planting and learning, with a large perennial area (teachers and parents donated the perennials), about 6 raised beds, and  2 large picnic tables in the learning area to seat an entire classroom, and finally 2 alumni donated benches for enjoying the fruits of our labor.  Next came the  sensory exploration and play area,   with water, sand, soft herbs and a variety of plant tastes, textures and smells for students to explore, and a bean tepee.   Finally, we attained a pergola, outdoor chalkboard with stumps for seating, more storage sheds, and added many more beds.  Take time to be  aware of accessibility for everyone in all of your planning phases.  You want to be sure everyone is able to enjoy  the garden, and all the learning experiences it provides.   

Here’s some more advice from me to you:  

  • Raised and elevated beds are best for a school garden.  I prefer wood beds over concrete blocks as wood is a bit softer and I believe it is safer for kids to be around.  I also prefer a more natural look (just my own preference).  Kits for raised beds are readily available, and most grants will allow you to buy them as “hardware” in the garden.  Some of these beds might even be free…Some of our sturdiest beds were built by a volunteer who scavenged wood from alleys, his own wood pile, and other areas for free.  Keep in mind when planning your raised bed area, you want to be sure you have a water source readily available, and that your beds are close to doors that provide easy access for all of your students (don’t forget about wheelchair access). 
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If you are building beds in a school garden, and are considering mobility issues, it is really nice to have a ledge so that the students can sit to work.  Also, be sure to consider the width of your beds.  You might want to keep them at 2-3 feet for children.  Garden paths around your beds should be at least 24” wide for ease of access.   Elevated beds with open access for wheelchairs are a must in an accessible garden.

  •  Another thing to consider is the materials used for pathways through your garden, especially when considering those in wheelchairs or with mobility challenges. Mulch, grass, straw, and gravel are okay for most gardens, but not ideal for school gardens who want to be fully accessible.   In our garden,  pathways were compacted crushed stone.  These worked well for about 2-3 years,  but  then the stones rose to the top and made it difficult for students in wheelchairs to propel.   Brick and concrete, especially the concrete with stones embedded within it, make a good alternative, but here again, you are dealing with a hard surface area, and it can be quite expensive.  We placed our elevated beds for wheelchairs just outside the accessible doors, along the very short sidewalk there. Unfortunately, without sturdier surfaces for meandering around the entire garden, eventually, an adult had to help the students in wheelchairs get to the different areas.
  •  As mentioned before, open spaced, elevated beds are one of the best beds for accessibility for students in a wheelchair or those with mobility challenges.  Elevated beds  provide an area that a wheelchair can pull up and into for reaching to plant/harvest, and a place for stability while standing.  We were fortunate enough that an all female carpentry group came and built our first wheelchair accessible bed for us, which was quite large.
  • Another thing to consider for those in wheelchairs is the bed depth.  A bed with deep sides might hinder the accessibility for reaching into the bed to plant and harvest.  Usually 8”-12” deep with dirt filled very close to the top will help make the bed more accessible.  If your bed happens to be deeper, you could use straw, hay, leaves, or other natural materials to reduce the depth.  Most elevated beds are 24”-36” high depending on the height of the wheelchair or if someone is standing at the bed. In our garden, we measured from the ground to the student’s wheelchair seat, and made the legs of the elevated bed that height.  With elevated beds, if you need to, you can always shorten/lengthen the legs so they are the correct height.  Early on, before I got an elevated bed, I utilized another option, which was  a sturdy table that was a good height for the student and then placed a container for planting/harvesting on that table.

 Well, I hope this has given you some things to consider and encouraged you that yes….it can be done…with lots of determination and volunteer time.  Most importantly, it is so worth all the time and effort when you see the love that children develop for their gardens.  I couldn’t walk into the school without children begging me to take them to the garden.  I have another blog comparing 3 types of raised beds with “how to videos” and ideas entitled “comparison of raised beds”.  Please contact me at this link if you have any further questions or would like to have me come to your school as a consultant.  

Happy Gardening!!

Kathy Gooch, Executive Director at 


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