Growing a Community with School Garden Grants
Students Utilize a Vegetable Garden Planner and Grants to Build Sustainable Gardens
School garden grants are only a piece of what makes a plot sustainable. Much like a child, it takes a village to care for a school garden, especially a sustainable one. When I started my school garden two years ago, I had a handful of teachers initially volunteer to help. We built the raised beds and all of our students added the organic soil, created the square foot grid and sowed the seeds. By the end of the year the garden was tended to by only my students and myself.
We obtained the shovels, soil and plants through various school garden grants. What we were lacking in was physical support. The administrators were great cheerleaders but we needed feet on the ground. By generating a community that is willing to help in various degrees, when the students graduate and I move onto another school, the gardens will still be effective.
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Vegetable Garden Planner
Learning how to grow lettuce is multifaceted much like growing green beans or growing cabbage. Each perform best with preferred pH levels, sun exposure and moisture. By having the students create a vegetable garden planner, they will learn vocationally what to plant and where. The teachers chose to follow a square foot garden plan to better allocate space for individual classes and students. The students were responsible for researching the environmental conditions for their squares and suitable crops. This aspect of planning a garden created buy-in with the students, but what about other stakeholders in the community?
This summer I attended a school garden conference at Bok Tower Gardens in central Florida. Kristi Hatakka, the State Garden Specialist from the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, Farm to School program shared with us many ideas on how to involve various stakeholders in the community, especially if they have no gardening experience.
Part of using a vegetable garden planner is researching frost dates and keeping records, both tasks easily supported by any willing parent. Hatakka suggested asking professional plumbers to help procure cheap irrigation supplies and possibly donating their time to install it, if they have a student in the school. Your bank could help with finding or providing school garden grants. Construction workers know where cheap lumber can be purchased and can help with the installation.
When creating a school garden, teachers, including myself, often ask questions regarding the physical garden but overlook the aspect of sustainability through prolonged community involvement. It came natural to me to find the school garden grants and in-kind donations. Top seed companies donated seeds and trowels. Since we didn’t need first-rate tools, we asked around for second-rate materials from landscaping companies. Local garden and big box stores also helped with seedlings and construction supplies. After a month or so, my classes were weeding, watering, harvesting and sowing solo. Those who had initially jumped on the bandwagon had gotten off. The school community garden was flourishing because of school garden grants, but lacked a community.
Growing a Sustainable Team
Hatakka recommends prior to building a school garden to have a meeting where stakeholders, including administration, teachers, parents and the community can have a conversation about their interests and potential involvement in the garden. After all, more hands equals less work.
- Community Buy-In – Start with introductions of who everyone is, why they are there and what they can contribute. “We are all a web and we are all interconnected,” Hatakka says. Use their motivations and visions to help create a shareable garden. Everyone should have a voice, everyone has something to contribute. When you have multiple groups that have an interest in your program they will all have different concerns and different angles to fix those concerns.
- Identify Leadership – Some individuals can be in charge of irrigation and others in charge of compost. Find out what their strengths are and what their passion is. If someone who doesn’t garden can be in charge of social media (something I didn’t participate in the first year) – that will free a much needed aspect of the garden. By promoting your garden through social media you can broaden your impact. You can donate more food to more places. Other leadership teams include, education/curriculum, communication, finance and agriculture/infrastructure.
- Garden Location and Design –There are several ways to build a raised bed – wood, bricks, cement or blocks. Raised beds do not even have to be on the ground. They can be built on cement and can be movable. Hydroponics, a nontraditional way to grow crops, is another option. Discuss with the group the wants and needs of the garden and design from there. For those looking for an advanced system, try aquaponics. Here, animal welfare needs to be included in the design.
- Decide Next Steps – With everyone in the same room with great ideas flowing, before the meeting is dismissed you must decide what are we going to do now. Get action steps to keep the motivation. Have a next meeting planned prior to dismissing the first meeting. Gardens always sound like a good idea, but you need to keep people engaged and involved. Taking a field trip to another school location will allow for connections and inspiration. Before you schedule the build think of all of possible issues and tackle them. It takes all different skills sets to build a garden. Celebrate your success by inviting local media. Don’t keep your success to yourself (which is something I did the first year).
To supplement all the great community partners you will rely on, here are some popular school garden grants.
School gardens are outdoor classrooms that improve health, wellness and life skills. When a child asks their mom, “Can we go get some kale?” we are making a connection. When children grow their own food they become invested in agriculture, the environment and the community. When building a school garden do not overlook the sustainable aspect. How do you fund and sustain your school garden?