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Growing a School Garden: Part One

Planting a garden at your school can be as simple or elaborate as your ambitions, financial resources, stamina, and the support of your principal, custodial engineer, and science teacher.

Recently we spoke with Michele Israel, a parent at PS 107 in Park Slope, Brooklyn, to find out how she started a garden at her school. We won’t lie to you: The process takes planning, diplomatic skills, research, creativity, resourcefulness and — did we mention this already? — stamina. But if you’re willing to dive in and spearhead a garden at your school, you could be rewarded with the sight of your child joyfully eating the lettuce, peas, and purple basil she herself planted in the school’s courtyard while learning firsthand about growing fresh food and healthy eating.

Because there are so many facets to getting a school garden started, we’ve decided to break down the process into three phases: development/planning, materials/financing, and planting/harvesting. Today we’ll look at the development/planning stage. Over the next two weeks we’ll cover the other phases.

There can be no garden at your school unless you win people’s support, particularly that of your principal, custodial engineer, PTA board, and teachers. So, before wasting any time researching and planning for a garden, go to your principal and see if she’s receptive to the idea. At PS 107, the principal was on board, but she decided that the garden would go in the school’s courtyard, which did not get optimal sunlight. “Since the principal supported the garden, we figured out how to work with the space,” Michelle said. In fact, Michele has identified being “a problem solver” as a key characteristic of being a school gardener, since you will run into many unanticipated obstacles, such as getting a space with little to no sunlight.

Once a space had been designated, a small planning team was formed that consisted of three parents and garden designer Bryan Quinn of One Nature Design. Members of the planning team visited a few gardens at other schools to get ideas and then had experienced people take a look at PS 107’s space to let them know what was possible. These people included the then-manager of the Brooklyn Botanic Garden’s GreenBridge and the executive director of GrowNYC, who happened to be a PS 107 parent at the time. Another person you might want to consider getting feedback from is an experienced gardener from a local community garden.

Working for the school on a pro-bono basis, Quinn then created several designs of what the garden might look like. (His work also included a shade study and recommendations for plants.) Before presenting the agreed-upon design to her principal, Michele first showed it to the school’s custodial engineer to find out whether the proposed design interfered with any fire exits or construction mandates. Input from your custodial engineer is critical, since they will know about building regulations, possible sources of water, where to store tools, etc. Once the design received their custodial engineer’s approval, members of the planning committee then presented the design, along with their PTA president, to PS 107’s principal and assistant principal. “The design really helped propel the project,” Michelle said, because helping the principal and assistant principal visualize the garden got them excited about it and convinced them to move ahead.

Accommodating your school administration’s needs and desires will be critical to your garden’s success, as will be your ability to assure them that the garden will not result in any extra work for them. You need to make it clear that you, the parents, will be doing all the dirty work (although in the case of PS 107, the science teacher got involved as well as the children) and that you will be consulting with your principal and custodian regarding each step of the plan. As Michele said, “The garden is not for the parents. It’s for the entire school and the school administrators have the final say … For example, to get access to the school on the weekend, when we did the construction, we needed a permit.” And the only way Michele could get that, as well a key to the courtyard, was through PS 107’s custodial engineer.

With time, as it became clear that the parents at PS 107 would be taking care of the school garden themselves, everyone became more amenable. The custodial engineer even took a trip to Home Depot to buy a hose with a gift card that the garden committee had won as part of a grant. As Michele says, “A school garden is about developing relationships. … I believe in working as a team and working within the parameters that we have.” In fact, the school administrators are now among the garden’s biggest fans, enthusiastic about ways the garden can grow and be incorporated into the curriculum.

Once you have a plan and the support of your principal, PTA board and custodial engineer, it’s time to form a volunteer gardening committee. In the case of PS 107, they were able to assemble 20 active and committed members including Bryan Quinn of One Nature Design, their science teacher, a local carpenter (a must for the construction of the all-important planters), and parents. The first task of the committee was devising a budget for the garden and securing funds. Next week we will have information about gardening grants, how to secure free tools and seeds, and what materials to consider for your garden.

About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.

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