Sowing the Seeds for Sustainable, Long Lived School Gardens

May 14th, 2015

Sowing the Seeds for Sustainable, Long Lived School Gardens

by

Nina Gerona

 

Sociology 399 and College of the Environment Capstone

Faculty Support-Mira Debs

Acknowledgements: I want to thank everyone who made this project possible; my incredible interviewees who offered such wise insights and who have worked tirelessly to nurture the minds of our future. I especially want to thank those people who facilitated site visits and let me put my hands in the dirt and pet (baby) goats. I want to thank Jack for endless encouragement and putting up with my shenanigans, Lindy for letting me borrow her car and being my brain twin, Jamie (and Ellen) for the carrel, and Hailey for sending out perfectly timed emails; thank you to the 212, co-op, and my family for the support and the food. I also want to thank Barry Chernoff, Valerie Martinelli and the entire COE for a wonderful four years. A very special thanks to Professor Mira Debs for her assistance in the development of this paper and her wonderful suggestion of the checklist.

In compliance with the Wesleyan Institutional Review Board, all names have been changed for privacy.

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A few years ago a small school district in the Rocky Mountain region was enthralled to hear they had been selected as the recipients of a 1.6 million dollar, three year, federal Physical Education Program (“PEP”) grant from the Department of Education. The extremely generous grant allows schools to increase and improve curriculum that fosters healthy, active lifestyles by funding programs and equipment to develop student’s habits of conscious eating and physical activity. During the three years the grant was offered many improvements were made including the implementation of a large octagonal greenhouse, known as a grow dome, at the back of the school. The idea was for students to come out and experience their food growing, build a connection to nature, and learn healthy eating habits with their hands, and mouths.

A garden coordinator was recruited who, along with her middle school aged daughter, became deeply involved first with planting and subsequently upkeep of the garden. Soon her daughter’s friends got involved as well. They were not only working in the garden, but teaching other students, aged kindergarten through high school, about the wonders of eating a fruit and vegetable filled diet.

When they decided to enter in a service learning competition for an organization called Destination Imagination, the girls decided to call themselves Cookies to Cucumbers (changed name). With adorable matching t-shirts and braids, they took their project first to the district competition where they shared with the judges the perils of our unhealthy generation and the replicability of their model for hands-on learning about health through gardening. After winning 1st place, they advanced to the state competition where again they impressed with their slogan of eating a rainbow and their immediate grow dome success story. Another top placement brought the girls all the way to the global competition in Knoxville, TN, a true testament to the importance and creativity of their project.

All the while, the 7th and 8th grade girls continued teaching activities to hundreds of students in the garden during their independent study class.  It seems the grow dome grant could not have been a bigger success.

Three years later, however, the money has been all been spent but the structure in place still requires the same amount of maintenance and funding for supplies. The garden coordinator, Tanya, who was previously paid for by this grant was offered a small sum from the school to compensate her generous amount of hours. Yet she admitted she “almost feel[s] guilty” taking away money from the already tight school budget. A proposal was put in place for a town wide soda tax (a penny per oz) that would continue funding projects that would no longer be funded by the PEP grant, but it was voted down. A partnership was created with a local business where the students would trade produce such as kale for needed supplies like soil. This is truly a great partnership, however the restaurant is very new and fighting all of the challenges facing the risky, highly competitive restaurant business.

About this grant the parent coordinator said, “They bought the grow dome and there were monies for keeping it up for the time. It was very generous and very, very helpful. But then that grant, after three years, went to waste. I mean you used it for these three years but it was not a sustainable sort of grant… because they want you to get things in place but then you need to figure out how [to fund it].”

Now, with much effort, the grow dome continues to thrive and the benefits are still very much tangible. The Cookies to Cucumber girls are still working hard growing vegetables and teaching their peers. Yet speaking with the garden coordinator, the future, particularly with finances, does not always seem so clear. It is hard to know what might happen after her daughter and her friends graduate from high school. By that time she will have already spent five years putting a ton of love and labor into the garden and perhaps it will be time for her to move on. The only hope is new people will become  involved, and willing to put in as many hours, so the era of the garden’s success will not leave with her.

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When school gardens are cared for and utilized by the schools, they can benefit all types of students across age, gender, background and interests. However their successes do not come easy and there are many reasons a school garden will fail to take root.

The United States has recently seen an insatiable trend of school gardens popping up faster than the vegetables that grow within them. This seems unsurprising, as it is difficult to find anything but vast praise for the projects and their benefits. Interestingly, despite the plethora of support for school gardens, there are very few studies that examine the long-term use of the gardens and even fewer that assess why they might fail (Ozer 2007). There are many challenges to keeping a school garden alive and well integrated into the school day. Yet published proponents of school gardens tend to steer clear of self criticism, leaving responsibilities to unaware or unprepared administrators, teachers, garden coordinators and even parent or community volunteers.

In this essay I am going to critically examine how school gardens can be sustained and thus remain relevant for their school community. Along with a review of existing literature on school gardens, I conducted a number of interviews with people involved with or leading garden projects for their school. This culminated in the creation of a checklist for school garden longevity that can be used to make sure all aspects that could shorten the school garden’s life have been thought through.

Benefits of School Gardens

When the gardens are well incorporated and run successfully, the rewards can be quite amazing. The gardens can be integrated across curriculum, allowing for interactive, learning that has even been reported to improve test scores (Klemmer, Waliczek, & Zajicek 2005)! The gardens are also most commonly used to teach science, health and nutrition or the about the environment. Along with these academic lessons, the students are learning valuable social skills such as maturity and responsibility (Hung 2004). The garden also allows for connections to be cultivated between teachers, parents, administrators, students and even community members, building a network of people that not only care about the garden, but also likely care about the student’s well being and success (Ozer 2007).

However while these benefits are widely publicized, it is much more difficult to find information about how to actually maintain the garden. This can be quite a challenging task, especially without a strong and committed group of teachers and parent volunteers. The upkeep of the garden consists of a fair amount of time, money and physical labor. This last piece can be particularly difficult as school is not in session during those months. With the passing of No Child Left Behind and Common Core the time spent preparing students for standardized tests and strict lesson requirements leaves little time for creativity and outside of the classroom instruction. If teachers are unfamiliar with gardening practices and do not have clear lesson plans they will not feel comfortable using them. A Florida study found school gardens are only utilized in an instructional setting 10% of the time (Skelly 2000).

Purpose

In this study I explore how different schools can best keep their gardens a relevant part of the campus curriculum and culture for sustained use. I began by analyzing literature on school garden maintenance and longevity. I then furthered my understanding with a number of interviews and site visits. My interviews covered a range of different garden programs and support organizations and also varied in the particular role of the interview in relation to the garden(s) (See appendix 1 for a list of all interviews and their positions.)

❀ Literature Review ❀

Gardens as an Integrated Learning Experience

When searching for information on school gardens, it can be nearly overwhelming the number of sources available offering praise of their academic and social benefits.  Across the board, school gardens are primarily used as an alternative to traditional classroom learning, particularly for science classes (Graham et al. 2005; Canaris 1995; Klemmer 2005). It is easy to imagine how a teacher could create a hands-on components to biology or even chemistry labs in the garden. However there are also many creative lesson plans that prove the gardens can be utilized across a variety of school subjects including math, social sciences, humanities and art (Waters 2008; Bucklin-Sporer and Pringle 2010).  For instance, humanities teachers might have students visit the garden to journal or draw their observations. Others might even create imaginative history lesson plans, such as one teacher who taught a history lesson about the feudal taxation system by splitting students into groups of serfs and lords and having them take each other’s vegetables (Waters 2008).

The states of California and Louisiana have even developed garden curriculum and lesson plans based on their state standards in an effort to increase the number of gardens and their use in their schools. (California Department of Education 2002; Louisiana Department of Education, 2004)

Beyond traditional science lessons, studies show the gardens are also frequently used to teach both environmental studies and nutrition (Graham et al. 2005, Bundschu-Mooney 2003).  As both areas simultaneously grow in mainstream awareness and relevancy, school gardens are increasingly being offered as a technique to introduce children to these themes of human and ecological health. School gardens have proven to foster a greater sense of environmental stewardship that lasts well into the future after the student has stopped working in the garden (Lohr and Pearson-Mims 2005; Skelly and Zajicek 1998; Bundschu-Mooney 2003).

Many studies have also shown that gardening can greatly increase the likelihood that a child will choose to eat vegetables and have an understanding of their importance; effectively changing their food preferences and nutritional knowledge (Waters 2008; Bell and Dyment; Canaris 1995; Hermann 2006; Parmer et al. 2009; Graham et al. 2005).  As most famously illustrated by Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move campaign, the importance of teaching health and nutrition in schools is almost always discussed in relation to our country’s soaring rates of obesity, heart disease, and diabetes and unavoidable presence of fatty, sugary processed food (Let’s Move Gardening Guide; Kurtz-Nicholl 2010; Hedley et al. 2004). It is critical for students to learn how to eat healthy and where their food comes from and at a young age. Especially since many educators hope that if they introduce their students to healthy eating practices in school they will then be brought home and transferred to their families. This will magnify the impact and begin to build healthy habits that will hopefully continue throughout the child’s life.

School gardens are also touted for teaching positive social and interpersonal skills such as maturity, responsibility, team work and self-understanding, all of which have been shown to have measured improvements (Hung 2004; Robinson and Zajicek 2005). The nature of gardening also opens pathways for reflection of life cycles including growth and change. The garden also allows for connections to be cultivated beyond and between members of the school community. Teachers, parents, administrators, students and even neighbors or community members, build a network of people that not only care about the garden, but also likely the students’ well being and success (Ozer 2007).

 The criticisms of school gardens are few and far between. An Atlantic article, “Cultivating Failure”, by Caitlin Flanagan offers a rare critic that time spent in school gardens should be secondary to the more essential lessons needed to bring students up to academic speed. She argues this is especially harmful to poor and immigrant children who are being deprived of basic reading and writing skills they need in order to, first, graduate, but also in order to escape the cycle of poorly paid manual labor jobs; the same work they are now being forced to do as part of school (Flanagan 2010). The pushback from this article was immense not only within the article’s comment section, but also by the school garden community that wrote many articles in response explaining her lack of research on the subject and how her “venomous attack” (Roby 2010) ignored findings that school gardens are in fact beneficial (Bennett 2010; Kurtz-Nicholl 2010). They cited articles such as the Klemmer, Waliczek and Zajicek report that shows students who work in gardens actually show improvements in test scores (2005). These garden defenders also pointed out the unwillingness of school garden proponents to critically examine their work. While I entirely disagree with Flanagan’s article and her critics, I do believe school gardens are held up on a pedestal of greatness from which some humbling research and reflection could be highly beneficial. 

How To’s and Other Popular School Garden Literature

To compliment the many studies showing the benefits of gardening for children, there are even more articles describing how to reap these benefits by starting a school garden. The resources are extensive and range from one hundred, or even two hundred, page manuals to WikiHow articles and casual articles like the My Healthy School website’s “Five Steps to Starting a Garden” (Center for Ecoliteracy and Life Lab 2007; Bucklin-Sporer and Pringle 2010; Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations 2005; WikiHow; Bergsund 2008).  These guides all focus on the materials and activities that are needed for a successful garden. All of them discuss gardening practices and skills such as planting and watering and soil maintenance and many focus almost entirely on these issues (Admin 2007; Bergsund 2008; National Farm to School Network). Garden design and layout are also commonly discussed at relative length (Admin 2007; Bergsund 2008; National Farm to School Network; California School Garden Network 2006; Bucklin-Sporer and Pringle 2010).  Some articles even offer unique design plans such as the innovative idea of hanging and vertical gardens for school which do not have space for a traditional garden (Quigley et al. 2015).

Other sections of the “how-to” literature focus on obtaining funding by offering suggestions for fundraising, securing donations, applying for grants or some combination of the three (California School Garden Network 2006; Bucklin-Sporer and Pringle 2010; National Farm to School Network). These guides also typically offer suggestions for contacting, working with and maintaining community volunteers and partners (Bergsund 2008; Center for Ecoliteracy and Life Lab 2007).  The California School Garden Network guide shares, “Volunteers contribute a wealth of experience and enthusiasm to a gardening program. They also bring abundant skills, fresh ideas, and extra hands to help with garden activities” (2006).

These guides are by far the most common literature available about school gardens. They are typically written very playfully with photos of wide-smiled children holding vegetables and examining bugs. Quite often the “how-tos” and benefits of school gardens are combined, convincing the reader why they should go ahead and start a garden if they had not decided already. The photos of the gardens are bright and lush, baskets are depicted filled to the rim with vegetables, it would be easy to imagine reading these guides and feeling the need to put down everything and start clearing space for raised beds.

Maintenance, Management and Missing Discussions

In 2012 Hazzard et al. ran a study of school gardens in California that had been offered funding as part of the generous $15 million grant from the California Institute School Garden Program (Hazzard et al 2012). They found only 39.4% of the schools that received money had met their goals. A case study of Los Angeles in 2001 found 14% of schools used to have a garden but for varying reasons such as lack of time, funding, support, experience or space, the programs were discontinued and the gardens lie fallow (Azuma et al. 2001).

If there are so many resources available for school gardens, why then do consistently end up failing or falling short of their goals? Most obvious are the many staffing, financial and continuity challenges that make caring for a garden in a school difficult. Perhaps more importantly, however, is the fact that these challenges are rarely openly discussed. School gardens have an easy to start and maintain reputation that is perpetuated by the lack of self critical school garden literature. The depictions of school garden maintenance are not missing entirely, but what has been published is sparse and often masks the demanding reality of school garden upkeep. The maintenance and management sections of the “how to” literature often delves no deeper than suggesting plans for watering schedules or briefly suggesting importance of curriculum integration and summer volunteers (Quigley et al. 2015; Fontenot et al, Center for Ecoliteracy and Life Lab 2007; Golden and Preiffer-Hoyt 2012). Throughout my research I kept expecting to find sections of these papers that talked about daily, weekly and yearly tasks to maintain the garden, but regrettably they all seemed limited to a few sentences of shallow discussion, if they were included at all.

What I found most beneficial to understanding garden longevity was when discussions of maintaining motivation and ownership of the garden were introduced (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations 2005; California School Garden Network 2006). These articles went beyond saying how you should get people involved, but offered the question why anyone might want to get involved in the first place and how you to keep the garden project interesting and relevant enough to avoid problems of rapid turnover, a serious problem in the world of school gardens.

Also very helpful for understanding the role of school garden management was an article titled “Keep it Growing Guide,” by the School Garden Wizard, a collaboration between the United States Botanic Garden and the Chicago Botanic Garden (Chicago Botanic Garden). This piece was really the only school garden guide I found that explicitly talked about challenges. In fact the paper, although brief, had an entire section dedicated to talking about the challenges, and their solutions. Another very unique but highly beneficial addition was advising gardeners to perform evaluations of his or her programs. This would allow the school or garden staff to keep track of what is and is not working in the garden so as not to be caught off guard when problems do arise.

❀ Methodology ❀

Interviews

I conducted seven interviews surrounding the topic of school gardens’ challenges to longevity with people across various schools involved with different types of school gardens programs (for a full listing of their job descriptions and schools see appendix 1). I found my interviewees primarily through personal contacts and then through academic connections. I then proceeded with a snowball sample, asking each interviewee if they knew other people involved with a school garden who might be willing to speak with me. Through this process I ended up with a varied group of people who were involved with school gardens in a number of different positions.

One limitation, however, is all except one of my contacts were working within a small radius of my University. I did reach out to a few school farms and gardens outside of this range, but found it was much easier to schedule interviews with people who I already knew, who knew my professor, or were in some way connected with the University.  It is certainly important to keep in mind when reading this study all of the gardens are in New England except the one I wrote about at the beginning of this paper which is in a small town in the Rocky Mountains.

I contacted all of my interviewees first by email. Three of the interviews were then conducted over the phone and four others I scheduled to meet in person. For each interview I began by asking for consent to record the conversation on my computer or phone. I used a semi structured interview format with certain questions I wanted to make sure were answered, but primarily allowed the conversation to flow naturally. This gave the interviewee space to explain the most important aspects of his or her garden and its biggest challenges as they saw fit. As the interviews progressed, certain themes quickly became clear; even after my first interview, and certainly after my second, I began to alter my list of questions to make sure I was touching on these themes with each person I interviewed. 

After the interviews, I listened back over the recordings and took notes on the most relevant information that fit with themes mentioned in all of the interviews as well as information that was new or unique. As you will read below, I grouped my notes by funding, community/volunteers/parents, leadership, administration, structure, biggest challenges and miscellaneous. After note taking, I went back to transcribe the quotes I felt were most illustrative for the paper.

Within the semester of research I also took three site visits, one to an elementary school garden, one to a vocational agriculture program attached to a high school and one to a farm/garden themed charter school. These visits better helped me understand the challenges, and benefits, at hand.

❀ Evidence from Interviews and Site Visits ❀

Leadership

“ Such a big part of it is…having someone who is really a proponent of this, and sort of, what’s the word I’m looking for, the rallying person, the cheerleader…The person who is really plugged into that community and really excited about it.”

-Allen, college student & leader of school garden after school program

The head management of the school garden program was easily one of the most consistent themes that arose during the course of my interviews. Interestingly, this is also a subject that is hardly mentioned at all in the literature about school gardens. Perhaps the articles and guides assume the person reading them was already committed to leading the garden. However this could be extremely problematic, especially if the person was not prepared for this very time consuming responsibility. This person not only is in charge of making sure the day to day maintenance of the garden is kept up, but also must be the garden’s advocate.

A garden leader holds many critical managerial responsibilities. They are often in charge of organizing volunteers and teachers, making decisions about how the garden will be set up and planted, applying for funding, outreach to the school and greater community and sometimes even developing curriculum. The leader(s) of a garden must most importantly be committed and excited as they are the rallying force for which people can get behind in support of the garden. They are also the stronghold when the garden is facing challenges. For example if the garden is taken over by tomato blight or funding is running low they will be the ones to push forward.

While the tasks of the garden leader are never too different, each program will delegate differently depending on their school and the resources available to them. Each garden, and garden leader, brings a unique understanding to how their specific garden should best be run. From my interviews and research it seems this role is most frequently taken on by teachers, parents, administrators, or paid external garden coordinators.

Within my first two interviews an interesting paradox arose about the best way to handle this position of great responsibility and commitment. My first interview was with a parent named Mark who had been involved and acted, along with others, as a leader of the development of an elementary school “Discovery Garden.”

What happened [in the beginning] is everyone was trying to do it the way they read everybody else was doing it. So it was like oh, we want a school garden, how do we do this? And all the information that they read was that you need to secure grant funds and get a point person and they take care of the whole thing. And we didn’t do that…We are not a school where we have the people with the skills to secure grant funding, we were supposed to do a lot of fundraising to pay for this position and we thought that was asking an awful lot of some of our parents who are barely making it.

To lessen the financial burden, they decided to split the responsibilities of taking care of the garden between many different parties who all became invested in the garden. The principal was a big proponent of the project and created a guide of curriculum the teachers could use when taking their class out to the garden. In the summer months Mark helped facilitate a Summer Stewardship Program where families would be responsible for taking care of the garden for two-week periods.

My second interview was with a woman Julia who runs a youth leadership development program centered around building urban school and community gardens. She had a different view and stated blatantly,

I think the best strategy for longevity is for it to be someone’s job… so you’re not having to rely on teachers that are overworked, underpaid and then having them come out and take care of the garden in their free time. It is always going to be a community effort. And you need people that are engaged with it and want to take care of it. But if you have a person, or people, in that case that are going to bottom line it. It is really, really valuable for thinking how this will work in the long term.

Often whether or not the garden coordinator is paid works as a tradeoff with how many people hold leadership roles, or are highly invested in the garden’s continuation. The fewer people involved, the more time the coordinator will spend working in and preparing the garden, and the more they deserve to be compensated. It is never possible for a single person to run a garden program on his or her own, however it is fairly often one person becomes the head coordinator, the go-to person with both more knowledge and power in the garden. This can work well because this person can make quick decisions and can easily be held accountable. Children may also become more comfortable when they see the same person in the garden over and over again. 

On the other hand, it can often be very beneficial for a school to split responsibility between multiple teachers, administrators, parents, volunteers or paid coordinators. This reduces the individual burden so those in charge are physically able to offer their time freely, alongside any other jobs they may have. Reduce the amount of hours they need to spend in order to keep the garden alive allows them to be involved without being over worked or  burnt out. This works best for some schools, especially those with less financial resources.  They also tend to enjoy and benefit from the variety of ideas that are brought to the table when working with a diverse leadership team.

I asked an interviewee who has worked with a school garden resource center and thus many different school gardens which he has found is more successful. He said, “In our school garden partner schools that have been most successful, it may not be a full time position…but there is absolutely a set of people who are officially and unofficially empowered to play that facilitation and support role.” He mentioned one school where a team of five adults, “ call themselves the leadership team. It’s a Spanish teacher, the husband of a staff member who is retired and has some time on his hands, and a couple other classroom teachers and a special educator who form the core team. So it seems they collectively play the role of supporting one another and the teachers.”  “They are doing awesome work without a paid person taking on that role.” He also talked about schools where the environment, gardening or farming is a more central theme in which case they might not only benefit from a full time staff person, but may need multiple paid positions to keep the larger, and more complexly integrated program, running well.

When the number of people and time commitment/ compensation balance is not upheld, a single unpaid leader can quickly lose initial enthusiasm.  For example Allen, the college student who, played a critical role in the implementation of an after school garden club in a nearby elementary school said, “as a freshman and sophomore I didn’t really think realistically about how to spend my time on [the garden] and as my time [at college] progressed, I got busier with other things.” Yet despite his declining availability to commit to the garden, he was still treated as the sole student leader by members of the school and community. This held true even when other students expressed interest in sharing leadership responsibilities and his availability was reduced due to his time spent abroad or working on his senior thesis. He still spent a lot of time with the garden, but felt tension not being able to commit as fully as he once had. This story seems quite common, a person with extra time will get excited to start a school garden but quickly life will get in the way, leaving the garden without the crucial point person needed for success. It generally seems volunteers, teachers and parents are much more willing to get involved when there is already officially or unofficially set leadership. Perhaps they worry, not entirely without reason, that by shouldering some responsibility they will end up with far more than they can handle.

In this case, Allen was lucky when a woman name Erica got involved with the garden. Her role as head of the school’s Family Resource Center allowed her to spend some time tending the garden as part of the youth development role of her job. Her enjoyment of gardening and position as a parent made her an excellent candidate to enthusiastically support the elementary gardens continuation and growth.

Program Structure

There are many different ways a garden program can be integrated into a school. It truly depends on the size, type, and resources of the school to determine which will be the most successful. For example, some gardens are used entirely within the context of the classroom. With this type of implementation, teachers either spearhead or greatly assist with the planning of lessons while a parent, volunteer or coordinator can assist with the lesson’s facilitation. This might function with a teacher choosing to use the garden for additional hand-on learning within a class unit, or perhaps even using the garden as the primary basis for learning a science, health or environmental theory.

Other gardens rely solely on teachers to instigate the garden’s use as a classroom tool, as well as their upkeep. If the administration or other volunteers do not step in to assist with garden maintenance or developing lesson plans, this method can be dangerously unforgiving to the overcommitted teachers. This situation seems typical of some school gardens after a paid garden coordinator or enthusiastic parent has left, leaving the rest of the overworked teachers feeling responsible to keep up the garden. However this method is usually not sustainable without committed volunteers. It also seems to be the organization most likely to cause the garden to fall out of use. Yet this method also can give teachers a large amount of freedom as they can choose what they want to plant specific to certain experiments or lessons they might want to do.

Some garden programs are taught entirely by an outside coordinator/volunteer, but still within the class period. Here the teacher may offer less direct support, but still must be flexible and willing to alter their in-class instruction time. This would function as the teacher signing up for a time period to take their class out to the garden, putting a large amount of trust in the coordinator/ volunteer to be a successful and engaging teacher.  In this type of program structure, it can be very beneficial to understand how the garden curriculum relates to what the students are learning in class. A certain level of continuity between the classroom and garden can be helpful in enforcing learning. The garden lessons should also be taught at appropriate grade levels which might need to be decided with help from the teachers. This organizational structure

A more simple strategy, is when the garden is used  primarily, or entirely after school hours. A teacher or volunteer will work with the students in a “garden club” or a similar program. This is often the easiest for a school garden’s initial implementation, but can also become the most removed from the classroom learning environment. Further, the students who might benefit most from the garden, but do not know it, will not self select to get involved.

Farm or environmentally themed schools often have gardens more in line with their mission of education. In theory, this means they will be used and cared for more than at other school gardens. As more fully integrated programs the themed private, magnet or charter schools garden may be given more structural and administrative support. These schools will also often even encourage nontraditional classrooms, for instance foreign language classes, to find creative ways to use the garden. However these gardens still face the same challenges for successful curriculum integration and sustained use.

Teacher and Administrative Support

As you can see from the different school garden structures, the role of teachers is absolutely crucial for the garden’s survival and beneficial use, especially over the long term. Administrative support is also important for a successful garden. Their support encourages the garden’s continued use, and provides essential logistical assistance.

If a teacher has not gardened before, or if they are not used to hands on learning, they may be discouraged from using the garden. To assist with the garden’s utilization, teachers can almost always benefit from professional development. This is especially true in schools where the teachers are given more responsibility for creating lesson plans and using the garden, something they may not be comfortable doing. Professional development can also be crucial for the teacher trying to encourage growth of a school garden in a school without much support. School garden workshops often cost a small fee, but provide teachers with valuable skills that can greatly improve the garden. Perhaps most importantly, the teachers and coordinators will return to the project energized with ideas to put to good use. Even if only one or two people attend, they can then share their experience with other teachers and garden educators (See appendix 2 for resources available for school garden workshops). Bringing together teachers who work in the garden can also be an important teaching opportunity through the sharing of successful and unsuccessful lesson plans.  Some schools have increased teacher participation rates in their garden simply by visiting the site with the staff and discussing ways the garden can be used to teach. Brainstorming and hearing successful lesson plans can easily build up momentum and make the idea of a garden classroom less intimidating.

It is also crucial for a garden’s success to understand what teachers are dealing with inside of their own classrooms. I heard from multiple people I spoke to about how the new Common Core standards created difficulties for their school gardens as teachers were having to spend incredible amounts of time learning the new system. “Teachers are overwhelmed with everything that was expected of them because not only was there a new Common Core curriculum, but there was new teacher evaluation programs and new testing and all these new initiatives. So to say now we want you to participate in a school garden it just wasn’t a good time,” Erica explained about their elementary school garden’s after school program.

School bureaucracy can also be a challenge for school gardens. If a relationship is built with someone in the school office who can assist with “figuring out budget proposals and getting insurance approved and all that” (Julia) it will be take much less time and energy than trying to go at it blind. Administrative support can come in many forms including assistance with outreach such as posting garden news in a school newsletter or providing  a small bit of ever necessary funding. Even assisting with grant writing can improve the proposal’s legitimacy and deemed importance. If vegetables grown in the garden are going to be used in the school’s cafeteria, the food service staff must also become involved. This process will also require administrative assistance as the garden is tested and certified for food safety.

Access can be another challenge for school gardens. As Julia mentioned, “schools are not meant to be permeable” and security features fundamental to the school can cause difficulties for instance, if a volunteer has to come and water on the weekend but does not have keys.  Administrative support is necessary for smoothing over these simple, yet consequential logistics.  Further, all site plans and alterations should be approved so as not to create any tensions.

Involved administrators can often suggest which resources, such as water spigots and shovels, are already available for use. These physical tools are often under the control of janitorial or grounds staff who typically hold keys to storage closets that can, or perhaps already do, hold a number of crucial gardening supplies. The project should never create more work for these staff members, but they should be informed of your plans and perhaps they will even want to get involved! Either way, they should be made aware of the garden and all structural plans so as not to disrupt their own tasks. 

Parent and Community Involvement

While a garden can be spearheaded by a single leader or leadership team, and logistics can be sorted even with small amounts of administrative support, school gardens can be an extraordinary amount of work. True longevity and successful use of a garden requires a certain amount of outside community and parent support, even with a paid coordinator. As Allen, the college student, stated in our interview,

I think it’s really important to have people have a sense of ownership over it and a sense of buy in and feel like, the same way I’ve felt for so long, like it’s my baby, I don’t want to see it die and covered in weeds. It’s important for other people to feel that way about the space.

This support is especially necessary for, but can also be generated by, big projects such as the fall and spring garden cleans ups. Many schools host a sort of garden party/ work day; a social, community event that also allows for time consuming labor, such as clearing and prepping the beds, to be done much more efficiently. As Ross said, “human capacity is key”.

It is important to realize the more people are involved with the garden, the less the work it becomes. However, it is not always easy to coordinate volunteers and often they will not have the same training or skill set as the garden leaders. In this respect every school garden deals with inexperienced gardeners. In many ways that is the point! However it can still be frustrating to see children too enthusiastically harvesting and ripping out the roots of plants, or a volunteer unknowingly weeding the wrong plant. Yet as one parent pointed out,

That’s part of having a community garden is educating and then saying ok, I have to leave it up to them now… we don’t pay to have someone there all the time so we have to have a little bit of trust going on. And sometimes I come in and I can see that they’ve half drowned it…And we could have easily just put out little irrigation feeders and just set it up to drip water everything. But we didn’t, we chose to make sure the kids are doing it. That’s why we have a watering wand, we make them pull out the hose, we make them connect it, we make them weed by hand.

Getting parents involved in the garden can be a great way for them to participate in their child’s education while simultaneously ensuring the survival of the garden. If they are aware of what is happening in the garden they will have something more specific to talk about with their kids beyond the highly typical “What did you do in school today?” “Nothing” exchange.

Parents can also be asked to volunteer helping water, weed and harvest during breaks, including the most difficult period for the garden: summer. This is a crucial time to have commitment to the garden because while this is the time the garden can be most productive, it is also the time with the fewest people around the school. A successful summer program can often help ensure the long term continuation of the garden as parents, or even other community members become invested in its success. Care of the garden over the summer is important for vegetables to be ready for harvest when students return in the fall rather than starting with an empty and bed or one overgrown with weeds.. It can definitely be difficult to hold people accountable for their responsibilities over the summer, and often schools do not want to pay someone to take care of the garden while the students are not around. Yet if volunteers can be organized, or if the garden can be tended by a summer school or camp using the school’s space, the yield can be highly rewarding.

One challenge faced by school gardens is vandalism or disappearing vegetables. Posting signs, creating clearly labeled community beds or sometimes, if serious, putting up a fence can all deter this from happening. However if people who live near the school become invested in the garden this can also be helpful as many will report instances of unwanted visitors, or simply keep an eye out for the garden. In return these helpful neighbors should be allowed to help, and harvest, from the garden.

Funding

“It’s very frustrating…there’s a lot of funding available…to start school gardens and to buy materials for school gardens, but very little funding available to take care of those gardens.”

-Julia, head of youth urban school garden program

It is the unfortunate truth that lack of funding tends to be one of the biggest challenges to maintaining school gardens. Each year the gardens need soil, seeds or seedlings, fertilizer, wood and other building supplies, and more garden tools (it seems the children are great at misplacing hand shovels and gloves). Some years the gardens will not need much while, of course, it takes much more money to set up the garden or to expand in size.

If the garden is not maintained solely by teachers or volunteers, there must also be money to pay for the garden coordinator. Julia, a manager of a program that helps build and facilitate school gardens clearly understands this problem which is, “not unique to gardens, but true across non-profits. You can get money for programs, you can get money for supplies, but no one wants to pay people to actually do the work. Staff and overhead expenses are really hard to get funded. So you can get money to buy wood for a school garden and buy soil, but those are also the things that are easiest to get donated. So we can build school gardens for very, very cheap it’s just hard to get the money to pay the people to keep them up.”

This discrepancy leaves the gardens vulnerable to discontinuation and the leaders having to work creatively to find other funding sources. This can be especially problematic if the grant pays for very expensive infrastructure that can no longer be maintained.  There are a number of national and local grants available for school gardens (see Appendix 2), and while most of them are for starting gardens, with some  research it is certainly possible to find some that can provide for supplies or expansion. The Lowes Toolbox for Education, and the Whole Kids Foundation School Garden Grant Program are just two that will also fund existing gardens. Local grants can be found by talking to nearby sustainability and education focused non-profits. It can also be helpful for these organizations to see that you are actively working to fund your project.

Fundraisers are a tried and true method for raising money for school garden projects. Fundraisers can vary in size, scope and involvement from bake sales and raffles to cooking competitions or carnivals, but should always be discussed and decided on by the parents, teachers and volunteers who will have to put the event together. This source of funding however can be very time consuming for far less money can be awarded by a grant. Another small source of funding can sometimes be found within the school’s elective budget. This can be a stable source of monetary support, but schools, especially public schools, are often too strapped to offer much. It is also very likely local hardware or garden supply stores will be willing to donate supplies. If you are able to get soil and other supplies donate it can add up quickly and create great savings in the garden’s budget.

Ross spoke to me about the importance of funding longevity for his organization’s’ urban school partner gardens. This organization offers “mini grants” for two and three years after a school has received a larger grant. This is to ensure the continued success of their partner gardens without pulling the monetary rug out from under them completely. However he says, “the mini grants and some of the other free services that we offer are. as much as anything, a vehicle for sustaining the energy of those people [leading the garden].” When a school is given a mini grant, even if the money can not pay for much, simply receiving the grant can raise spirits and bring rekindled excitement to the project. He also focused on the importance of buying simple, inexpensive things, but ones that will make a big difference for the use of the garden. His examples were a stump circle where the students and garden leader or teacher can sit before or after working. Another important, but sometimes overlooked feature is a locked store box where garden tools can be kept. This avoids losing tools and the hassle of schlepping gear from the classroom.

❀ Discussion & Conclusion ❀

In researching the factors that are crucial for the longevity of school gardens, I found substantial differences between the available literature and understanding I gained through my interviews. My belief is due to the impossibly large number of unique circumstances at each site, it is difficult for authors to write blanket conclusions of what can or will happen after the garden’s implementation. Small variability in factors such as leadership, outside support, school involvement, funding, and even the age of students, location and climate can all create specific challenges and play a significant role in the outcome of the program. If an article or book becomes too specific, it simply reduces its applicable readership to the point of irrelevancy. On the other hand, if suggestions are made in a manner that suggests they can be extrapolated across school gardens or farms, the author risks perhaps an even worse fate of harming the other programs by offering advice that is not feasible in that specific circumstance.

Yet, while it would be impossible to write maintenance guidelines that will hold true for any farm or garden, there are certainly themes essential for longevity that hold true across location, size and circumstance. After gaining this knowledge, I wanted a way to comprehensively share this knowledge for others thinking of starting a school garden or trying to improve the longevity of their current garden. Thus, I created a checklist of considerations for school garden sustainability.

The Checklist for Long Term Success of School Gardens

The Checklist Tool for Long Term Success of School Gardens can be used in addition to other literature for a school to figure out how to best sustain their school garden.  The themes I wrote about in this essay became the backbone of the checklist.  It is not a list of things the garden needs, but rather a list of things to think about that could strengthen, or on the other hand weaken, the program down the road. The sooner this checklist can be examined the better. This is because the certain issues on the list take time, relationship building and certainly a lot of planning to integrated into the structure of the garden’s use.

By writing about and discussing these themes, along with explorations of specific examples and case studies, I hope some of the guesswork and trial and error that is so typical for maintaining school gardens can be reduced. While I would be surprised if most garden leaders had not already thought about most of these issues at least to a certain extent, I believe having them collected in one accessible place could make the very difficult and uncertain task of planning the garden’s future a bit more manageable. By thinking about, and even writing down how different groups of people and resources might be integrated into their garden down the road, the speed bumps become less severe when they do occur as backup plans have been considered or even already put into place. The goal is for the benefits of the school garden to be allowed for students well into the future.

Future Research

As a single semester project, it was impossible to gather more than a handful of interviews. To strengthen one’s understanding of school garden challenges to successes and longevity, it would be necessary for many more interviews. More diversity, particularly geographical diversity, would expand the themes of this paper and checklist to more closely mirror the complexity of issues surrounding school gardens. Future quantitative and qualitative research should be done to better understand how the ratio of successes versus failures of school gardens can be increased. Literature that incorporates these specific challenges for longevity should be added to the many sources that explain how to set up a garden. With a more realistic view, people wanting to set up a school garden will be better prepared to set up the structural aspects needed for their garden to continue well into the future.

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Appendix 1. List of interviewees and background

Mark– Parent and unofficial garden leader of an elementary school garden who helps facilitate the summer program and overall organization of the fairly new “Discovery Garden.”

Julia – Manager of an urban youth leadership development and food justice summer program that gets young adults aged 14-30 involved with issues of food, nutrition and farming by helping build and maintain school gardens.

 Allen– Senior University student who played a critical role in setting up an elementary school garden. Also leads the garden’s after school program.

Erica– Adult head and coordinator of the above garden. Works for the school’s Family Resource Center and has become involved both due to her own interests in gardening and the way it ties into her work.

 Tanya– Parent and sole coordinator of school grow dome and middle/ high school garden club.

 Ross– Director of impact and engagement of farm themed charter high school. 

Maria and Friends – High school vocational agriculture students.

Appendix 2. A List of Resources for School Gardens

Workshops

Grants and Funding courtesy of Collective School Garden Network

Other Resources– courtesy of Whole Kids Foundation

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