Before considering the design
Identify a location for the garden
Find plans of the chosen site, available from the LEA, to determine whether there are any services underneath the surface, or contaminants from previous land use that you should be aware of
Look at legal, technical, safety guidelines and school policy documents as required
Consider when you want the garden to be completed by, and produce an action plan
Establish a group to move the project forwards and decide who will project manage the design and building of the garden and who will maintain it later
Incorporate the project into the school development plan
Find out if any of the skills needed exist in the school community, parents, governors or the friends/PTA, for example gardeners, garden designers or builders
Share the vision. Engage everyone in the school community – managers, staff, parents and pupils. Make everyone aware of the potential of a school garden and the benefits your school will gain from using it
Establish the orientation of the site (N, S, E and W). This will influence what will grow there
Survey the site – walk around it, see what you have there. Are there paths or sheds you need to keep? Are there any plants that could still be used? What trees do you have? Check to see if any of the trees are protected by preservation orders or are in a conservation area
Ensure risk assessments are completed before any work is started in the garden. Use our example of a risk assessment which will give you guidance.
Designing your school garden
Get the children involved in carrying out a survey to see what they want.
Look at your site. How big is it? What type of soil do you have (clay, sand or silt, etc)? How much of the garden is in light or shade? How much moisture is there? Are there any permanent features which you will have to work around?
Establish the purpose of the garden. Is it to attract wildlife or to become an environmental area? Do you want to grow produce or herbs? Is it to be a sensory garden? Is it to provide shade? Will it be to teach certain subjects outdoors such as science, geography, maths or English? Will it be for pupils, staff, parents and the local community to use? Or is it for a memorial garden that needs a calming and quiet feel?
While deciding the purpose of the garden why not look at ideas of different vegetables, fruit, herbs and edible flowers that could be grown. You can also find a list of sensory plants and plants for wildlife to grow, using our guides.
Decide on shape and position of planting beds
Narrow beds (no more than 120cm in width) are good for children as they can reach the middle for planting and weeding from both sides without compacting the soil. If the beds are only accessible from one side then they should be no more than 60cm in width. Consider if raised beds are more suitable for your school garden. See this guide on creating raised beds, so you can plan them into the garden if suitable.
Incorporate sustainability into the garden design
Try to include a compost heap and water butt.
Will it be organic? Chemicals are best avoided where there is the possibility of children either attempting to eat plant parts or putting fingers in their mouths. Be cautious if using animal manures as fertilisers. Liquid plant feeds can be made from nettles or comfrey. Use our example of a risk assessment which will give you guidance on these topics.
Can you recycle anything to use in your garden to make a feature?
Old tree stumps can be sculptured to provide a focal point.
Reuse items such as containers in which plants can be grown.
Choose plants suitable for your site and conditions. This may take a little more time, but it will be worth it in the long run and you will not have the disappointment of sickly or dead plants. For example if you have a very dry, sunny and warm garden you could create a dry garden. Alternatively if you live in Scotland, Northern Ireland and parts of Northern England and Wales you can use this guide on winter vegetables for northern climates to plan your autumn and winter terms gardening.
Consider those with special needs in your design
The priority is to design entrances, outdoor paths and hard surfaces to accommodate as full a range of special needs as possible and to ensure that children are not denied access to any of the opportunities and activities that the garden offers. Distance is also an important consideration for children with limited stamina, and there should be things of interest in the school grounds that are near to the school building.
Use a combination of surfaces with different textures as you move from one area to another in the garden. This aids orientation for partially sighted people and also makes the garden more interesting.
Make the paths wide enough for wheelchairs (at least 120cm or 180cm so that two wheelchairs can pass). Consider carefully what materials are used for the surfaces of the paths, they need to be firm, even and nonslip. Self-binding gravel is less harsh than tarmac or concrete. Find out more information about how to garden with special needs.
Implementing your plan
Clear the site of weeds and rubbish. Be careful at this stage if you involve children. There may be hidden dangers. Be aware of potentially harmful plants when gardening and ensure gloves are always worn. Try to involve the children as much as possible in the garden build as this helps them form a feeling of ownership and care towards it.
Make sure labels with the names of the plants are written in a large, easy-to-read font, in lower case and if necessary also in Braille. You could get the children to make the labels or signs. For added interest include the common name and Latin name of the plant, plus what it may be called elsewhere in the world.