school gdn headerIn part one of this series of posts I outlined a few tips on getting your School Garden project up and running. If you’ve got the key people on board, identified what the overall aims and objectives of the project are and hopefully secured some start-up funding and promises of help, it’s time to get serious about the design of your Garden. Here are seven ideas to help you…

1. Who will be using your space and what are their needs? It’s important to think about the range of users and why they’ll want to use your garden. Yes, children, but what numbers and ages? During the school day or afterwards? Will parents or the wider community want to get involved? And just what sorts of activities will your garden need to support: growing food, outdoor play, studying nature, formal lessons (in some sort of shelter?) etc.? It’s important to list these and start to see what they suggest in terms of the overall layout of different areas, spaces, structures etc

2. Survey and appraise your site– you may have your area already defined by walls, fences, hedges etc. or perhaps you’re confined to an area of the playgrround. In any event it’s important to accurately measure out the plot. From these measurements you can create a scale drawing (say 1cm = 1 metre) and any key features that are likely to remain – e.g water taps; significant slopes; trees; hedges; types of soil (you can see if it needs improving and what the pH is by using a simple test kit); the way the site lies (in relation to sun, wind, prevailing rainfall etc.) and how the site is accessed. It’s also worth checking on the current maintenance regime and who’s responsible for this (e.g. if you’re thinking of taking over an area of sports field that is regularly mown).

A gathering place like this shelter is probably important

A gathering place like this shelter is probably important

3. Think about basic needs:

  • Sunlight- ideally you’ll have a space which is open to sun at most times of the day, but use your survey information to identify the sunniest and shadiest spots and start to think about what to place in these
  • Shelter – from strong, cold winds and midday sun – look at boundaries and think about growing hedges , using fences (ideally with gaps to allow slowed wind to pass through) or putting in wind breaks of mesh material. Do you need some trees or an awning to provide a sun shade?
  • Water – either from a tap or through adequate outdoor harvesting of rainwater from sheds, glasshouses, or possibly school buildings
  • Pathways –  to get around the various areas. These need to be wide enough and of a surface and gradient that a wheelchair – user can negotiate without too much effort
  • Good soil – if you’re removing asphalt, the soil underneath is likely to need radical improvement or possibly overlain with imported topsoil. In most situations you’ll need to get organic matter – compost, manure, leafmould– to improve it over time
  • Fencing or another suitable boundary – to keep younger children in and intruders out . You could grow a hedge and whilst this gets established, on one side try a chain link or similar fence which in due course can be removed leaving you the wonderful sight and wildlife value of the hedge
  • Plants– what are you intending to grow? Each type will have different needs – are you envisaging growing under glass/polythene, if so space for a glasshouse/polytunnel will be needed. Do you envisage some sort of wildlife pond, if so this will need a suitable range of plants and may need a secure boundary
  • A gathering area – where groups/classes can be instructed or shown a task. This can be outside and informal (e.g. getting an annual supply of straw bales is a good cheap way of providing seating)  or enclosed within a shelter
  • Storage– a good tool shed, which if large enough can possibly double up for seed sowing/potting up, or alternatively a separate shelter/structure for this if that’s something you envisage doing in your garden
  • Tools and equipment – these will vary according to what you are growing and the size of your plot (and your children), but here’s a guide. Tools:  gloves– enough for everyone who’s gardening at any one time; trowels and hand forks or hand cultivators (enough for half a full class – say 15) ; a mix of adult and child – sized spades, digging/border forks, rakes, hoes (3 or 4 of each); wheelbarrows (probably at least 3); Secateurs, loppers, pruning saws, brooms (1 or 2 of each); watering cans – a couple should do, you can make home made ‘plant showers’ out of plastic tubs with holes in the bottom. Equipment: clipboards (one each for a full class); stationery supplies – paper, pencils, crayons, markers, glue, string, tape, scissors and a First Aid Kit! Also, if you plan to sow and grow your own plants you’ll need a range of other equipment like seed trays etc.
Get some child -sized tools

Get some child -sized tools

4. Get the children involved (and your wider support group) – you will by now have a good idea about what could be in the garden and you need to share these ideas and discuss others with the children who’ll be using the space and those key adults (teachers, parents etc.) who will also want to feel the project is theirs. You can devise some fun ways of engaging these people, perhaps involving n a loose outline drawing of the plot and your first ideas in pictorial form (e.g photos cut out from magazines), from where children can be asked to draw/write/otherwise think about and convey their ideas and wants for their garden (I can guarantee someone will want a swimming pool!). This will generate interest and ownership of the project.

Raised beds, narrow enough to allow access to the centre without walking on the soil

Raised beds, narrow enough to allow access to the centre without walking on the soil



5. Options for planting –  depending on what you want to grow and the space you have available I guess you’ll either be planting in containers (pots, planters and all sorts of quirky planters too), open beds (which have their edges cut into the surrounding ground, often grass) or raised beds– these are edged with boards or other timber and so help to define the growing areas (especially for food crops). If the sides are about 20cms high they can be used to contain additions of manure/compost from year to year as you build up the soil’s goodness and structure. Raised beds can be to varying heights to cater for different ages of children, but ideally they need to be narrow enough to be tilled from the surrounding pathways so that feet don’t trample and compress the growing areas.  Rectangular beds are probably the most efficient shape. These beds can be constructed using pressure – treated timber or alternatively there are several places where ‘ready to assemble’ kits can be purchased. If you want to avoid too much digging of the soil (this can be detrimental to its structure) you can just lay a covering of organic material over the beds each year (taking note of the requirements of different groups of plant if growing food) and lightly fork this top-dressing in as you begin the growing season.

How about a plastic bottle greenhouse?

How about a plastic bottle greenhouse?

6. Go beyond basic needs– it’s important to focus on basic needs in developing your designs, but if we just stick to the functional requirements, we will miss an important opportunity to make the School Garden exciting, fun and an experience for all the senses!  So, think about growing herbs and other plants which have differing fragrances, leaf textures, colours and are in other ways interesting – tall grasses that catch the sunlight and bend in the wind for example, or Stachys (‘Lambs’ Ears’), which has wonderful velvety leaves, Lavender for that midsummer heady smell! Likewise Sunflowers are a wonderful example of the power of nature as they shoot up to enormous heights and beauty starting from little seeds that the children can sow themselves. Similarly, children can get involved in producing signs for different parts of the garden, another way to make them feel that this is their garden and make it look funky too!

A simple scale model heps to convey your design

A simple scale model helps to convey your design

7. Consult on an outline plan – once you’ve taken all of the above into account you can firm up your plans on paper and maybe even produce a simple 3D cardboard/ scrap model of how your garden could look! Models are especially useful for getting children (and adults) to imagine just what features there are and what the layout will look like.  This could go on display at the School for a week or two and you can invite people to put their views on sticky notes nearby so that everyone can see who’s saying what. Gather these up and then  with your committee/support team work out those which should be incorporated into the scheme.

By the end of this process you should have a clear, accurate design plan on paper that everyone is signed up to and which is ready to rock!

In Part 3 of this series I’ll share some thoughts on constructing your School Garden and especially the day you ‘ground break’.

Sources & Further information:

How to grow a School Garden’ – Arden Bucklin-Spooner and Rachel Kathleen Pringle, Timber Press Books

School Gardening Club- ideas

Budding Gardeners- lots of advice and info

Garden planner tool

Planning your school garden

Food & Agriculture Organisation School Garden Planner

California School Garden Network Guide to School Gardening

School Gardening Wizard

Old School Gardener

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