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Creating and Using a Schoolyard Garden

Teaching in a garden can be a fun, yet stressful experience. Schoolyard gardens are meant to serve as an outdoor learning space for students, but they should also serve as a beneficial place for plants, insects, and other wildlife that use the space. It is important to be prepared for anything when working with students in an outdoor setting, for their own safety and for that of the garden and its inhabitants. 

Our Schoolyard Ecology Explorations program (SEE) was founded in 2004 when a collaboration of University of Minnesota professors, including Rob Blair, Karen Oberhauser, Dave Tillman, Anne Kapuscinski, and Peter Reich began working together to expand on past successes from the existing Schoolyard Long Term Ecological Research (sLTER) program and the Monarchs in the Classroom program. The sLTER program is affiliated with the University’s Cedar Creek Natural History Area, Monarchs in the Classroom, and the College of Food, Agriculture, and Natural Resource Sciences. SEE is supported by funds from the Minnesota Office of Higher Education, Improving Teacher Quality, US Forest Service - International Programs, and donors like you!

Planning Your Schoolyard Garden

Garden design for Monarch Lab's 2nd butterfly garden (Photo: Monarch Lab)

An important step to being successful in your efforts to install and use a schoolyard garden is to first plan the garden. Not only will you need to plan for where the garden will go and how big it will be, but you must also consider who will be responsible for maintaining the garden, what plants you will put into the garden, and what safety precautions you need to have in place in order for everyone to enjoy it. 

Here are a few tips for planning your garden: 

  • Consult with native plant growers or gardening groups about what plants or seeds may be available to you and what species they recommend for your garden.
  • When you have a better idea of what you'd like to plant and how many of each, it is often helpful to draw up a plan for your garden, such as the one pictured here. It is best to keep like plants clumped together, and make sure that tall plants are not planted in front of shorter ones.  
  • Make sure that you plan a walkway through your garden for easy viewing access. A bench or interpretive signage are also nice additions to a schoolyard garden. 
  • Follow the plan! If your students are helping to plan and install the garden, have them help draw and color code the design and get to know the layout of the garden and what should be planted where. 
  • Set up a plan or schedule for maintenance of the garden. While some landscapes can take care of themselves, a garden does require some help from you. Make sure that you have students, parents, ground crew workers, or volunteers who are interested in helping you maintain the garden by weeding, watering, etc. 
  • It is also a good idea to make sure that you have a safety plan in place before beginning the garden. This can include things such as how many people can be in the garden at one time, how to behave while in the garden, specific commands that can be used to get the attention of the group, what to do if someone gets hurt or reacts unfavorably to a plant or insect in the garden, etc. It is important to have more than one chaperone with a group in the garden whenever possible to help in emergency situations. 

Installing the Garden

Students working in the garden (Photo: Carole Morelli)

Installing a garden with a group of 30 students could be a bit tricky. If you are going to use your students to help install the garden, make sure that you have a plan and assign everyone to a job! To prepare the garden bed, you may need wheelbarrow drivers, shovelers, mulchers, and rakers (it will be important for you to have the area somewhat prepped and ready for mulching and planting before you bring students out). If your students are too young to do these jobs, more preparation by adults beforehand may be necessary. 

Once you have the garden prepared for planting (old vegetation cleared, proper soil amendments added if required, newspaper or other medium laid down over bare soil, and mulch added) students may help with planting! Before you start digging, refer to your garden design that you drew up in the planning phases and have students lay out which plants go where and set flags out for where the walkway and bench/sign will go if you have those items planned. Once everything is in place and meets your satisfaction, have the students split up with small trowels and start planting plugs! Older students may be able to plant seeds as well. If you'd like to grow seeds, it may help to start the seeds in your classroom under a grow light for a few weeks prior to your planned planting date.

You'll also need waterers! Newly transplanted plants need a good dose of water to get established. You'll want to make sure to water them regularly for the first week or so that they are in the ground.  

Maintaining the Garden

Your garden will require maintenance. This can be done by adults or by students, but if you do decide to have students help with the garden maintenance, there are a few important things to consider. Make sure that you educate the students so that they can identify good plants from weeds. You don't want them to pull out plants that were meant to be there, or leave weeds that may take over the garden if not properly controlled. Start with having students pull weeds by hand, but if you decide to allow them to use garden tools such as a hoe or trowel, teach them the appropriate and safe ways to use them. 

When handling plants and garden tools it is also important that the students wear appropriate clothing. Gardening gloves can be worn to prevent students from getting blisters or exposure to irritating plant materials. Make sure to warn students not to rub their faces without washing their hands after handling plants in the garden. Milkweed latex, for example, can be very painful if rubbed in your eyes and should be washed out immediately. Covering skin and other body parts is a safe way to minimize risks of exposure to sun, stinging insects, and irritating plant materials. 

Lessons for the Garden

Once your garden is in place, you won't want to wait to start utilzing it! It is fun to see the garden change over time by watching the plants grow and observing the diversity of insects and other wildlife that visit the garden. Make sure to download lessons from our Curricula to use in the garden with your students. If you use the garden for other activities or lessons with your students, please share those ideas with us! 

Schoolyard Garden Resources

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