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Young Sprouts: Start a School Garden

Activities and Play

6/15/2022 | Emily Jaeger

School gardens promote environmental awareness and are a source of hands-on learning experiences year-round. The plant life cycle, water cycle, nutrition, cooking, soil science, color theory, seasons, and pollinators are just a few of the topics to explore in a school garden. Not to mention that vegetable gardening helps learners improve their fine motor skills, teamwork, patience, and listening. 

However, school gardens are not a one-size-fits-all project for every childcare facility. You have to determine whether or not you can accommodate an outdoor garden. Additionally, for a garden shared among the whole school, you will need a designated staff member to coordinate gardening tasks and make final decisions. The first step to implementing a school garden at your facility is figuring out what type of gardening technique is right for you.

Different Types of Gardens

There are a couple of considerations to help you choose the best gardening technique for your childcare facility. 

Will your garden be indoors or outdoors? Unless you are thinking about an ornamental shade garden, an outdoor vegetable garden that produces everything from lettuce to tomatoes requires 8 hours of direct sunlight. Also, do you have the space? Outdoor gardens do not need to be gigantic: you can grow a lot of vegetables or flowers in a single bed and it will be easier to maintain. 

There are a variety of indoor gardening methods, from low-tech window gardening to dirt-and-bug-free hydroponics and aquaponics. A window sill is a perfect place for individual classes to experiment with gardening. South-facing windows offer the strongest light, with east or west-facing windows taking second place. Learners can attend to and watch their plants grow every day from their classroom. You do not need large-scale staff buy-in or infrastructural changes.

Hydroponics systems grow plants in a mix of water and added nutrients instead of soil. They also often use grow lights instead of natural sunlight. This means no bugs, no dirt, and year-round gardening in any weather. And believe it or not, they conserve more water than soil-based gardens. Unless you have a hydroponics grower on staff or among your families, you will need to purchase a pre-made hydroponic garden. Individual classes can try out small hydroponic garden kits or you can spring for a hydroponic tower for your entire facility. Aquaponics also incorporates fish…can you say class pet? 

What type of garden beds? If you’ve decided to go with a whole-hog outdoor, school-wide garden, you have a couple of options for construction. Unless your facility is a historical building (or right next to a historical building) that could have possibly leached lead-paint residue into the soil at some point, it is safe to use whatever soil you have onsite to start your school garden. Consider double-digging your garden bed with a shovel and pitchfork to make way for strong plant roots. You can also incorporate compost for added plant nutrition.

Raised beds, wood frames filled with soil, either DIY or from a kit, are helpful for keeping things looking neat and clean. The wood frame prevents soil from eroding from the edges of your bed due to heavy rain or curious toddlers. Also if your soil quality is poor or unsafe, it is easy to fill a raised bed with the good stuff from your local hardware or garden store. Whatever type of bed you choose, pay attention to width. Beds wider than 3 feet are not ideal for young gardeners (they won’t be able to reach!) and 4 feet is the upper limit for adults. 

While sunlight is the most important factor in determining where to put your garden bed, you also need to think about your source of water. The closer a garden is to a water hookup or hose, the easier it will be to water. Or more accurately: the more likely it will get watered at all. 

What will you grow? School gardens are often synonymous with vegetable gardens, allowing learners to explore both plant science and nutrition. However, this is not the only option. Don’t forget about berries! Also, school gardens can show how field crops (like corn, wheat, and soy) grow, introduce native plants, or attract bees and butterflies with beautiful flowers. If you don’t have quite enough sunlight for vegetables, a native plant or pollinator garden could be a great choice. 

Who’s in charge? Make sure to assign a staff member to coordinate gardening tasks for school-wide gardens. Gardens need to be watered, weeded and checked for pests regularly. These are all great activities for young children. But with so many other things going on in the early childcare day, it’s important to have someone assigning and double-checking that these things happen. The garden coordinator can also make final decisions about what is planted and where.  

To help with these choices and more, check out our Young Sprouts series for year-round garden care and fun gardening activities for early childcare.

Emily Jaeger is a professional writer with a background in education (she's taught every age group from preschool to retirement). Her writing has been featured on Parents Magazine, Kveller, Motherfigure and more. You can connect with Emily via her website emilyjaeger.com or on instagram @soulinparaphrase.

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