How to Start and Maintain a School Garden
How to get started
1) First and foremost get permission from the principal.
2) Get help. Talk about your proposal at the next parent/teacher conference. Contact your local Master Gardener office for volunteers in your area. In Los Angeles, the Master Gardener Email Gardening Helpline can be reached at
3) Placement of garden – Minimum 6 hours sunlight and good drainage (if sunlight is questionable grow veggies that don’t fruit: lettuce, spinach, swiss chard, etc.)
4) What’s your water source? Is everything working? Do you need a hose and nozzle? How often will you water and who will do it? If using in-ground watering system, how long and how often?
5) Consult with maintenance, they control the water. Introduce yourself if unfamiliar.
6) Secure Place for Tools – Essential tools are: Garden Fork for turning soil and compost, Shovel for transplanting, Dirt Rake for leveling the soil in beds, removing root clumps and large pebbles, Garden Hoe for removing weeds, Hand-shovels (also called trowels) for digging small holes, Hand-cultivators for weeding and aerating soil, Pruners for cutting large stems, also Poles, Cages, and Trellises (tomatoes, peas, cucumbers, pole beans all need support to grow). Misc. – scissors, string, gloves, rulers, tape measure, row ends and plastic baggies to distribute the bounty.
Preparing the space
1) Containers, raised beds, or planting in-ground
If containers they should be washed, cleansed and filled with container soil. Cleanse old containers with a solution of 1 part bleach to 9 parts water. If raised beds, no wider than 4 feet. Students need complete access from both sides.
2) With raised beds and/or planting in-ground first we clear the beds, then add amendments, then turn the soil, thoroughly aerating it as we go. Amendments (like organic compost) are nutrients we add to the existing soil. No walking on the beds after they have been turned and raked as this compresses the soil making it hard for young roots to pentrate. Amending the beds is physically our hardest job.
Planting the Garden
1) Seeds or Transplants – Sow seeds directly in the ground in September as the ground is still warm from the summer and germination will be easy. After the winter break start seeds in containers indoors and transplant when ready, approximately 3-4 weeks. Germination becomes difficult in the winter as nighttime temperatures fall below 50 degrees. Seed germination is best at temperatures from 60-80.
2) What to grow and when to grow it – We have two seasons in a school garden: before the winter break, and after the winter break. Before the winter break we plant cool season vegetables like broccoli and peas, after the winter break we begin our warm season vegetables like zucchini and tomatoes indoors and then transplant.
3) Lay out rows – We make rows to identify where our seeds are planted. Read seed packets for spacing. If given the choice lay out rows perpendicular to the arc of the sun.
4) Planting Day – Make it an event. When planting from seed, depth is important. General rule: depth is twice the width of the seed. See seed packet for individual instructions. Make a trench under the string, scatter seed, stress that each seed is a plant and needs room to grow, space the seeds carefully. Cover the trench, pat it down, and water. Very Important – Bed must never dry out during the germination process. In the beginning you will need to water nearly every day.
1) Thinning – Put two students back to back and ask if they would like to live their entire lives like that. Plants need room to grow as well. No two plants can occupy the same space. Carefully remove one by cutting it off at the soil line. You don’t want to pull it out as you may pull out both. Spacing instructions will be on the back of the seeds packet. Do it gradually and eat the thinnings as you go.
2) Mulching – We mulch to suppress weeds, to keep the soil warm in the winter, and to preserve moisture in the spring. Lay down some sheets of newspaper between rows and cover with compost, hay, or mulch from the city. Mulch can be turned into the soil the following season.
3) Fertilization – Compost is the best organic fertilizer. When compost is used for mulching the nutrients filter into the ground whenever it is watered. Another excellent organic fertilizer is worm tea (for any of you with worm bins). Fish emulsion is also good.
4) Pests – Be very observant, check the underside of leaves. Aphids, cabbage worms, white flies, etc can be removed by hand or with a gentle spray of water. Slugs and snails are deterred by surrounding seedlings with a ring of eggshells. Any diseased plants should be thrown away and not put into the compost bin.
Leafy vegetables like lettuce, spinach, swiss chard, cilantro we begin harvesting the outer leaves first, that way we can harvest over a longer period of time. There will be a tendency to pull out the entire plant, warn against this until the plant has fully matured. Peas and beans do best when harvested regularly. Use scissors or fingernail to cut stem and again warn against pulling out the entire plant when harvesting a single legume. Harvesting is very exciting and students should be rewarded for their accomplishments. Plan a harvest party whenever possible. Talk to kitchen staff about introducing vegetables into lunch program. Recycle your plastic bags and allow students to take home samples.
1) Los Angeles is a city of many diverse backgrounds. Plant a garden representing all inhabitants: Corn from Mexico, Radishes from China, Beans from the Americas, Melons from the Middle East, Cucumbers and Eggplants from India, Cabbage and Broccoli from Eastern Asia, Potatoes from South America, Sweet Potato from the Carribean, and Yams from Africa.
2) Three Sisters – Native American garden concept consisting of corn, pole beans, and winter squash. All are grown together to compliment one another. Corn provides support for beans, which in turn provides Nitrogen for corn and squash. Squash grows along the ground suppressing weeds.
3) Plan a fundraiser by making decorative pots and selling seedlings of vegetables and flowers.