When the grey, cold days of January and February become oppressive, many garden enthusiasts find an escape from the bitter winter by reading through their gardening journals and seed catalogs to plan the coming season’s Eden. The same holds true for many classrooms across New Jersey where school gardens have been an integral part of their curriculum and sustainability program. 

A school garden can be a great tool for hands-on learning. They have many practical applications to the educational program in areas such as wellness and nutrition, planning and design, mathematics and measurement, sustainability, science, and physical activity. As with other kinds of applied learning experiences, school gardens can increase a student’s motivation to learn, promote the development of thinking skills, connect education to real world experiences, and facilitate communication and social skills.

Diego DeAssis, social and environmental sustainability officer for Long Branch Public Schools has seen the school gardening program grow from one school garden approved by the principal, into a districtwide program that includes a garden at every school including their preschool. The Long Branch Public School gardens harvest more than 2000 pounds of produce which is sold at a local farmers market, and the proceeds are used to support the gardening program. Leftovers from the market are distributed to members of the school and local communities. The planning, planting and care of the gardens are integrated into the educational program and the gardens are used extensively by classroom teachers to support a variety of academic experiences. The gardens are enjoyed by staff and students as a restful area to have an outdoor class or respite.  The growth of the gardening program over the last ten-plus years is a testimony to the effectiveness of the program in engaging the school community. (Get a better view of the program.) 

There are different approaches to gardening and other factors that affect the success of a school garden, so matching a garden program to a school takes research and planning. Fortunately there are many resources available to help with the process. Approaches run the gamut from traditional in-ground gardens and raised beds to container and hydroponic gardening, which can be used by schools with limited space to garden. The New Jersey Department of Agriculture has information on school gardens as part of the Farm to School   initiative

Policy Considerations Policy language on school gardens may be added to your sustainability policy (NJSBA discretionary policy 3501, Conservation Sustainability and Green Initiatives).  It may also be a stand-alone policy for districts that do not have a sustainability program or are not participating in the Sustainable Jersey for Schools Certification Program

Gardening is a sustainability activity and fits within the guiding principal of sustainability:

Everything that we need for our survival and well-being depends, either directly or indirectly, on our natural environment. Sustainability creates and maintains the conditions under which humans and nature can exist in productive harmony, that permit fulfilling the social, economic and other requirements of present and future generations. (NJSBA sample policy 3501 Conservation, Sustainability and Green Initiatives)

An advantage of combining a school garden program with existing sustainability efforts is that the Green Team is already in place as a working and planning group.  The Green Team is a multi-disciplinary leadership group that may include teaching staff members, administrators, board members, facility staff members, food service personnel, community members, students, and parents/guardians. School gardens require the cooperation of the teaching staff, the maintenance staff, students, parents/guardians and other members of the school and local community to have the best chance of success.

School gardens will also be subject to policy requirements that ensure the health, welfare and safety of students and staff.  If you plan to treat your plants to prevent insect infestations, the requirements of the Integrated Pest Management Plan apply (see NJSBA model policy 3510, Operation and Maintenance of Plant). Soil amendments, fertilizers and substances that prevent plant diseases such as fungicides may be toxic. Even organic treatments can be toxic. The requirements for the use and storage of hazardous substances are regulated by law and regulation through the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), and are covered in policy on safety (NJSBA model policy 3516, Chemical Management).

In most districts, the facilities director or his or her designee maintain the required documentation on hazardous substances and are responsible for the appropriate use and storage of such substances.  It is important that staff members understand that stopping by the hardware store and buying weedkiller to use in the school garden is prohibited and the use of such substances must be arranged with the appropriate facilities personnel. There are also requirements for the use and storage of equipment (NJSBA model policy 3514, Equipment). The board should ensure that hand and power tools such as rakes, hoes and rototillers or tools for garden construction and maintenance such as power saws, nail guns, etc. are safely stored by your facilities personnel. Staff and students should be trained in the safe use of tools, especially power tools, in order to reduce the risk of accidents.  

Growing Edible Produce For schools growing vegetables there are considerations for food consumption.  The New Jersey Department of Agriculture does not have regulations for students tasting the food in the garden.  The food should, however, be appropriately washed and prepared before consumption or before distributing the produce to the school or local communities. For more information on how to wash vegetables click here and here.

If, however, the district wants to use the foods grown in the garden in the cafeteria, regulations for the inspection of foods approved for school cafeterias apply. The supervisor of your school cafeteria should be aware of the requirements and consulted in planning how food will be used in the school breakfast or lunch program.  For resources on making garden produce safe and sanitary click here

When planning a school garden, consideration should be given to how the garden will be maintained during the summer months when school is not in session.  When a district has an active summer program, integrating the care, maintenance and harvest of produce into the summer curriculum may be an option. Regular events may be planned to attract the school and local communities to the garden and may also be used to keep the garden going.  A strong volunteer program with scheduled responsibilities specifically dedicated to the care, maintenance and harvest of the garden is another approach.  Hiring students and/or staff to oversee the garden may also be possible when it is within the allowable budget. A district that has difficulty rallying summer help for the garden may select options for gardening that require less care and watering such as wildflowers, or restrict the season to crops that will mature before school is dismissed for the summer. For ideas on how to maintain a garden over the summer click here.

Support from the Board As with any school project, the board can anticipate that there will be expenses that need to be covered as part of the school budget. The garden will need to be constructed which may require the purchase of materials for the construction of raised beds and fences, tools, seeds and plants, and more. When approving a new school garden, the proposal should contain a breakdown of the expected costs and how these cost will be funded. There are many grant program available for school garden. A good list of these opportunities may be found here.

While it may be possible to begin a garden and sustain it all or in part with grant money, planning for how the garden will be maintained through the years may require the board to dedicate funds through the budget.

While many students may get excited about an “A” on a test, assignment or report card, the reward from a garden is much more tangible. In a garden a student can plant a seed or a bed plant, take care of it, watch it grow and then touch and/or taste the fruit of their labor. Gardens offer students the opportunity to be part of a shared responsibility, both indoors and outdoors, that engages them with the community of the classroom, the school and in many cases the local community. Creating opportunities for students to gain hands-on experience that connects their school program to the real world supports student achievement. Perhaps Robert Brault expresses it best:   

“If you’ve never experienced the joy of accomplishing more than you can imagine, plant a garden.”

For the sample and model policies discussed in the article or for help developing policy and regulation language to suit your needs do not hesitate to contact NJSBA Policy Services

Jean Harkness is an NJSBA policy consultant.