Planting a successful school garden requires a lot more than just soil, seeds and water, say researchers who have come up with a planning tool that can help ensure school gardens thrive and endure.
A teacher or parent may be the driving force behind getting a garden started, but once the teacher leaves the school, or the parent’s child graduates, gardens can wither away unless they have been well integrated into the school community, the study team writes in Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
School gardens have a host of health and educational benefits, from getting kids to eat more fruits and vegetables to boosting academic achievement in science, math and reading, they write.
To better understand what it takes to help a garden thrive, Kate Gardner Burt of Lehman College in New York City and her colleagues looked at successful gardens at 21 local elementary and middle schools, and mapped out the characteristics of gardens that played an enduring role in the life of the school.
Based on these findings, Burt and colleagues defined a four-level process toward successful school garden integration. Dubbed the GREEN Tool, it’s the first evidence-based guide to planting and nurturing sustainable school gardens, the researchers say.
Among the common themes for success that emerged in the research, Burt noted in a telephone interview, was that schools that established a garden committee early on were able to cope with challenges more successfully.
“The other really important piece to integrating the garden that consistently came up in my discussions and interviews was the idea of professional development,” she added. “Many teachers who don’t have horticultural experience might be really intimidated to get into the garden.”
Professional development sessions that focused on the garden – even informal ones hosted by a garden coordinator at lunch or after school – can help motivate teachers and build their confidence, she added.
Having neighborhood partners and reliable funding for the garden were found to be important keys to sustainability. The planning of the physical garden space and planning for upkeep were also identified as critical components.
Connecting the garden to curriculum was another key step. Once teachers become more comfortable with the garden, they can begin to see the possibilities for teaching through planting and gardening, Burt said. “Using gardens as a mechanism to teach math, that opens teachers up to all kinds of grant possibilities and opportunities.”
In the surveys, for example, more than 95 percent of the schools used the garden for teaching science or nutrition classes. Another 76 percent used it to teach agriculture, 71 percent used the garden for English language arts, 67 percent used it for math, 62 percent for environmental science, history, health and home economics, and 57 percent of schools used the garden for art class.
Tying school gardens to academics can be another way to strengthen their roots, Burt said. “If students can learn any of the core academic subjects better by using the garden, then we can provide more compelling evidence for why gardening should be sustained in schools.”