The idea of school gardening is not new. But as people are increasingly aware of the benefits of gardening and growing food, school gardens have become a popular way for educators to bring true cross-curricular, hands-on, project-based teaching and learning to their students.

Starting a school garden sounds like a simple idea, and it is…if you only want a short-term, one-season-only garden. To plan a school garden that will be embedded into the fabric of a school or school district, with long-term benefits for students, is a much bigger task.

For those who embrace the latter process, however, the benefits are immeasurable.

About five years ago, when fellow teachers and I began planning to create a garden space at Dorothy L. Bullock Elementary School in Glassboro, we had no idea where to begin. We asked, researched and begged; we got lots of “yeses,” “nos,” and promises. We felt frustration and glee, and survived on little sleep and lots of coffee!

Two short years later, we spent a wonderful weekend in May 2015 with more than 200 school, community, and national volunteers helping us build a beautiful donated outdoor classroom space, which became the award-winning Bullock Children’s Garden. Without clear, defined, living goals, and the involvement of important stakeholders in garden education, the success of Bullock Garden would not be possible.

Plan, then Plant When considering how to create and use a school garden, the purpose must be kept in the forefront of planning. Gardening provides a real-life connection and application of skills for learners of all ages. One reason I was inspired to garden with my students was the desire to move my first graders, who were learning how to use a ruler and tape measure, past the basics of measuring a book, table leg, or classmate’s arm.

“Wouldn’t it be really cool,” I said to my teacher partner, Missy Tees, “if we could grow some plants and have the kids record the growth over time? That’s more exciting than measuring inanimate objects they’ll never measure in real life!”

As a special education teacher, transference of skills is everything. But…as a general educator, transference of skills is also everything. If educators want to get neurons firing in the brains of their students, real-life connections of academic content must naturally lend themselves to practice.

Math, Science, Wellness Gardening lends itself to teaching math, science, sustainability, wellness practices, and more. At Bullock we produce mostly vegetables, and use as much as we can in our school cafeteria. The children volunteer to garden and harvest during recess, giving produce to the cafeteria to incorporate into lunches. That is a wellness lesson.

In many of our classrooms, teachers often select a piece of literature and tie that book to the New Jersey Student Learning Standards or Next Generation Science Standards. A school garden can fit into that picture, too.

In the picture book Pumpkin Jack, by Will Hubbell, a young boy creates a Jack-o-Lantern and, after Halloween, places the rotting pumpkin in his home garden. Over weeks, the boy watches the process of decomposition and is excited to see a plant growing from the pumpkin seeds when spring arrives.

How many lessons and curriculum areas can be touched upon from one picture book? In addition to literature/language arts, an educator can incorporate lessons about the changing of seasons (earth science), comparing and contrasting Halloween and Dia de los Muertos (social studies), count seeds inside an actual pumpkin (math), determine the supply/demand of pumpkin seeds and prepare them to be priced and sold (economics), design a unique pumpkin or pumpkin patch (art/technology), explore decomposition and organisms that assist in this natural process (biology, entomology), create a device to keep future-growing pumpkins off the ground, and safe from harmful insects (structural engineering, bioengineering, entomology.) The list goes on.

If one picture book can inspire a two-week unit for first grade, imagine the concepts that can be explored at higher levels, in increased depth and understanding, from a school garden.

Where to Begin Many people may ask how to start a school garden. It is important to know that teachers and administrators are critical for successful integration of garden education. These key stakeholders must be brought aboard before pursuing the idea of creating a school garden.

At Bullock, we formed a Garden Team, which includes our principal, and received support and guidance of our superintendent, other district administrators and Glassboro school board members. That support was critical in driving the success of the Bullock Children’s Garden initiative. Teachers lead and promote student excitement and ownership, while administrators communicate with teachers, and help ensure proper codes and regulations are adhered to for the safety of all.

Another key group of stakeholders are community businesses. Every school has someone who knows of a local landscaping company, garden shop, or Master Gardeners Association member. Garden team leaders should reach out to all of these, asking for assistance, advice, or donations in-kind or in-time. This can be a daunting task but as we found out, many businesses and companies want to help schools.

This is especially true within the “green” industry, or sustainability. Sustainability is critical to the survival of our earth, and exploring these concepts with children helps inspire many of them. For example, award-winning horticulturalist, green industry communicator and author, Brie Arthur, visits Bullock Children’s Garden several times a year to sow and teach classes about planting food.

An original volunteer and advisor to Bullock Garden, Brie has become a fixture in the district and the Borough of Glassboro, volunteering to assist in incorporating “foodscaping,” or planting decorative edible plants alongside ornamental plants, throughout the town. She has also featured Bullock Bulldog Gardeners – our students – and our schools in several of her lectures, speaking engagements, and in her book, The Foodscape Revolution. She has held classes for parents on gardening during her visits. She has also inspired several students to express interest in the fields of botany and horticulture: past Bullock students still speak of her and of how they want to study plants “…like Ms. Brie!”

While adults work behind the scenes, students must always remain the most important stakeholders. The garden is created for them. At Bullock, children have a voice in the plants that are planted (their favorite vegetable is tomatoes); they work to maintain their garden; and they even give garden tours to visitors.

Then, because children are excited and passionate about their garden, parents naturally take an interest. Many parents, to support their children, also create gardens at home. We, in turn, support them. That may mean actually going to a home and helping the parents and child garden. This helps bridge the home, school, and community connection, while solidifying each stakeholders’ commitment.

The Social Garden Social media plays a role in our garden, too. Since most fruit and vegetables are ready for harvest in the summer, special harvest days over the summer are announced on social media, inviting anyone to come harvest. During this time the children also help maintain the garden. The garden is not fenced in, so community members can also pick fruits and vegetables when needed – making us a resource for organic, fresh, local free vegetables.

Finally, another important stakeholder is the New Jersey Department of Agriculture and the Farm-to-School program. We are the Garden State, and we have the best resources for building school gardens and incorporating garden education. An online journey through the New Jersey Farm-to-School Program website will yield numerable resources for teachers, administrators, or school board members.

The help the Bullock Garden received from the Farm-to-School program was incredible. New Jersey Farm-to-School, can help schools obtain grants and additional resources for building and maintaining school gardens, as well as connect local farms with schools.

When the Bullock Garden was being installed, New Jersey Secretary of Agriculture Doug Fisher, visited our school, and helped dig out space for the garden. We discussed the importance of all children learning to reconnect with nature, and the benefit it yields to live healthier lives.

I told the agriculture secretary that day that my goal was to help spread the word to all New Jersey school districts regarding the importance of “putting the ‘garden’ back in the Garden State,” promoting gardening with all learners and garden education. With that said, I also offer myself as a stakeholder as well.

It is critical that we all come together to help the next generations understand that learning does not only occur within the four walls of a classroom…learning occurs all around us.

Especially beneath our feet.

Sonya Harris is Bullock Children’s Garden lead coordinator, at the Dorothy L. Bullock Elementary School, Glassboro NJ.