Avoid These 4 Common School Garden Challenges
Over the past decant, I’ve seen a significant increase in schools interested in school gardens. Traditionally run as extra-curricular activities or horticulture classes, the school garden is a tool for differentiated instruction, problem-solving, and cross-curricular learning. And while I’d love to see a garden in every school, they’re not without challenges. But maybe if we address these challenges upfront, we can make school gardens better and more common.
1. School Gardens Are Out of Sync With The School Year
The obvious challenge with school gardens is that schools often break for two months during the growing season when the garden is most actively growing. Students are absent when watering, weeding, and harvesting are needed. They miss out on the opportunity to watch the progress of their garden from start to finish. A typical vegetable garden isn’t that resilient without gardeners to support it, though there are some ways around that with ecological garden design.
A challenge with semestered school calendars is that the students who planted the garden in the spring aren’t necessarily those harvesting in the fall. This discontinuity makes it hard for students to experience the whole growing season.
- Use pace-layer thinking to design a garden that aligns with seasonal and social changes.
- Plant more perennials that don’t require as much maintenance in the middle of the growing season.
- Using growing techniques such as wicking beds, drip irrigation, and mulching between rows to reduce the need for water.
- Partner with community members to maintain the garden while students are on break.
- Ensure that the harvest/success of the garden is shared with the students who planted it.
2. School Garden Site-Selection and Responsibilities
The land surrounding a school is a murky combination of municipality and school board. Who owns the land and maintains the land is often unclear. This uncertainty makes choosing a location unclear for teachers and school administrators. Uncertainly stops gardens from getting installed or pushes them into less than ideal spaces for the school, municipality and gardens.
- (In Edmonton) The school board usually maintains the first fifty feet from the school building.
- Talk with your school board’s facilities to find an appropriate location and any design considerations. For example, school boards often prefer raised beds with enough space between them to fit a lawn mower.
- Create a scalable, mobile garden using containers.
3. Teacher Burn Out
School gardens aren’t part of the curriculum, so they’re almost always the product of educators going above and beyond their regular duties. Without a community of support, these passionate educators burn themselves out along with their gardens. It’s also not uncommon for teachers to move schools. When a garden champion burns out or leaves, the school garden often falls into disrepair. Gardens in disrepair are eventually returned to grass.
The School Garden Life Cycle:
- A champion educator or administrator wants to start a garden.
- They struggle to find an ideal location at the school.
- The garden is installed, used, and celebrated.
- The champion moves to a new school, burns out, or retires.
- The garden falls into disrepair and is eventually removed unless a new champion can be found.
- Always attempt to have at least two garden champions to ensure continuity when one eventually moves on.
- Establish a support network of teachers to prevent burnout. In Edmonton, Sustainable Food Edmonton is working on such a network called Urban Ag High.
- Avoid creating additional work by connecting the school garden to the curriculum you’re teaching. A school garden is a teaching tool.
4. School Gardens are Suceptable to Shifting Political Climates
Teachers and administrators change every few years, the curriculum is updated every decade or so, neighbourhood demographics shift, and budgets are revised (usually downwards). While the lifespan of a typical vegetable is a season, perennials such as trees and shrubs can grow for decades or centuries. How
- Create flexible garden designs that are easy to adopt and adapt by future garden champions. Gardens are alive and should be allowed to change over time.
- Provide opportunities for teachers, students, and the community to have autonomy over aspects of the garden. Allow individuals to make the garden their own while emphasizing communal sharing and responsibility.