School and Community Gardens

School children planting a garden
Photo courtesy of NOAA
Gardens support wildlife, clean runoff, and offer outdoor learning spaces.

Gardens come in many different shapes and sizes and can have a variety of goals. Rain gardens can be placed in low-lying areas or under downspouts to divert stormwater runoff from streets and storm drains and filter out pollutants. Native Plant, Pollinator, Bird, and Butterfly gardens are often designed to support and feed specific wildlife groups. Sensory gardens can provide a unique experience for visitors by containing plants that heighten the senses by offering a variety of smells, textures, colors, edible plants, and even sounds when plants blow in the wind. Edible gardens, like herb, vegetable or fruit gardens, can show visitors how to plant, care for, and harvest food. All these gardens can offer food and shelter to wildlife if filled with native plants, can fit into any space available from freestanding pots and window boxes to garden beds, and can serve as outdoor learning spaces for all types of disciplines and investigations.

Gardens can also be installed in response to the increase in impervious surfaces and habitat loss of forests, wetlands, and meadows due to increasing development throughout the Chesapeake Bay watershed. Turning impervious surfaces, yards, and degraded land into gardens can help clean our waterways by diverting and cleaning stormwater runoff and provide healthy and productive habitats for wildlife.

Connecting to Issue Investigation

Investigations that point to solutions focused on improving water quality, preventing flooding, and increasing habitat can all lead to gardens. Gardens offer environmental benefits and are a great option when space is limited. Gardens are also often located close to people so investigations looking at the human health and learning benefits of green spaces can also lead to this solution. And don’t forget, after a garden is installed it can become an outdoor classroom for future investigations!

For those working towards green school awards, this action can reduce a school’s environmental impact if the garden is preventing runoff or replacing impervious surfaces and advance environmental and sustainability education if used as an outdoor classroom.

Facilitating Student Action

Students should continue to have opportunities to share ideas and opinions throughout the process of identifying, planning, and implementing action. Listed here are just a few ways students can stay engaged while working on this solution—but there are many more! The complexity of each activity/task can be adjusted for each grade level.

  • Restore - before starting a garden from scratch, students should survey the schoolyard and nearby community for gardens that need to be revitalized. Students can advocate for a garden’s renewal, speak with school staff or community members to learn why it is in a state of needed restoration, and conduct interviews to learn how the community would like to interact with the space to better serve their needs and wants, like addressing food insecurity or a safe green space to enjoy. Community gardens should reflect the historical and cultural background of its neighborhood.

  • Create - garden creation can involve students of all ages and abilities. Using age appropriate tools and resources students can survey locations, test the soil, determine the light conditions, and choose native plants based on the garden type and goal. Students can also research maintenance plans and recruit help—before any garden is installed there should be a multi-year maintenance plan in place. The level of maintenance will be determined by the project goals because some gardens require frequent monitoring and weeding while others are designed to go wild. When creating a new garden, students should consider the accessibility for all community members.

  • Educate - students can share the results of their investigations that led to the garden solution and benefits of installing or revitalizing a garden. Depending on the age of students, this can take many forms from pamphlets, letters, skits, signs, and posters. Educating others can be a solution on its own that can later lead to a garden being installed or restored.

  • Advocate - students can advocate to the school board, PTA, or administrators for more outdoor learning by sharing the health and learning benefits of green spaces. Students can develop a plan for the garden and share how it can be used as an outdoor classroom for multiple subjects.

  • Monitor - students can monitor the plants and wildlife of a garden and other impacts on the landscape like reducing and cleaning runoff. Monitoring protocols will differ by age. Results and observations can be shared with others to encourage continued maintenance and use of the space. Data sets can build up over years and students can track changes in the garden.

  • Share and Celebrate - students can share their work with the school community by giving tours of the garden, giving presentations, creating displays, or writing and delivering morning announcements. Students can also write articles, press releases or invite reporters from the school paper and the local newspaper. Students can also invite the community out to help create and maintain the garden.

School and Community Garden Resources

  • U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service’s Schoolyard Habitat Project Guide is a comprehensive guide that walks you through the entire process of creating or restoring a schoolyard habitat or outdoor classroom space. The guide describes the process students can take to survey the space and identify the best type of garden for that location and the community’s needs.

  • How to Build a Garden from The Nature Conservancy covers many of the steps covered in the Schoolyard Habitat Project Guide but in video form! Videos walk you through planning, building, caring for, and addressing fears of the garden.

  • There are many Rain Garden resources out there. Check out the Rain Garden section (page 19) of Chesapeake Stormwater Network’s Homeowner Guide for a more Bay-friendly Property. The step-by-step guide includes great pictures. If you prefer videos, Maryland Sea Grant created videos on how to create a Rain Garden.

  • The Edible Schoolyard Project is a wealth of information for edible gardens. The organization offers trainings and the website includes many lesson plans that can be filtered by grade and subject.

  • Penn State Extension has created gardening resources that can be used by any watershed state. Check out Creating a Sensory Garden for plant ideas grouped around the five senses and Gardening for Butterflies for plants that support the entire life cycle of the more common butterflies in this region. These pages include some plant suggestions but before choosing any plants, make sure they are not invasive for your area, and if possible, select native plants.

  • What can a garden look like? Washington D.C. has a School Gardens Program and hosts a Flickr page of gardens across the District. Scroll through the photos of actual school gardens to get some ideas.

Don’t forget about your local Extension office! Extension offices can provide local knowledge and resources about plants, soil, pests and diseases and weed control. Use this map to find your local office. Also check-out this list of state-specific resources.