Setting up a school garden

Information sheet

If appropriately planned the school garden can be a stimulating and motivating place. It allows pupils or students to become more actively involved in their outdoor surroundings.

  • School term: All year round
  • Level of experience: No experience needed
  • Subject(s):

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
  • 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. Skills such as 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 

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)? What is the pH of the soil? How much of the garden is in light or shade and how much moisture is there? Are there any permanent features, which you have to work around?

Establish the purpose of the garden. Is it to attract wildlife or an environmental area? Do you want to grow produce or herbs? Is it to be a sensory garden? Sensory plants (with strong scents, bright colours, edible leaves/flowers, an interesting texture or which make a noise in the wind) are good for children generally as well as being excellent for those with special needs (see comment below). Is it to provide shade or is it to display composting? Finally is it for a memorial garden that needs a calming and quiet feel?

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.                      

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.

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 will be worth it in the long run and you will not have the disappointment of sickly or dead plants.             

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.

Implementing your plan

Clear the site of weeds and rubbish. Be careful at this stage if you involve children. There may be hidden dangers. Try to involve the children as much as possible in the garden build.

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. For added interest include the common name and Latin name of the plant, plus what it may be called elsewhere in the world.

Maintaining the garden

  • Who will look after the garden? Don’t forget the school holidays!
  • How do you prevent vandalism? Involving the community in your garden project and giving children ownership of the garden help.
  • Keep the paths in good repair and make sure that there are no overhanging branches.
  • Remember to monitor and evaluate your garden and add to or improve and change it as and when necessary.
  • Don’t forget to keep records at each stage of the development –especially photographic ones. You may need these later to enter competitions or apply for funding.

Ideas for finding funding 

You could write letters to parents, garden centres, seed companies and supermarkets asking for donations of money towards the school garden, plants, seeds, tools or help. Ask your pupils to write the letters as a literacy task. Don’t forget - you need tools. You may require specially adapted tools.

When designing the garden think about:

  • The distance from the classrooms
  • Water supplies
  • Storage of equipment
  • Access to toilets
  • Accessibility
  • The security of the site

 Visit other schools that have done similar projects to gain ideas.
 Contact organisations which are experts in this field and which may be able to advise you, including those involved with school grounds maintenance at the LEA.

Questions to ask

How will the children enter the garden? Will you have more than one entrance? Do you want a gate?
Hard landscaping -What type of paths do you want and where do you want them?
Will you be able to get funding for a shed or glasshouse and where will you put them?
What is a realistic budget?
Will you have a pond or water feature?
Do you want to add a piece/pieces of artwork or sculptures?
Do you want a fence around the garden? Could you grow a living ‘fence’ or hedge. Willow can make a nice edge to areas in the garden.

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