Alana Cama, Schools and Groups Programme Manager at the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) talks you through the steps to planning the perfect school garden.
Gardening is a trick up many schools’ sleeves – helping to get pupils active, boost educational attainment and promote good health and wellbeing.
After twelve years working with schools we’ve seen how even the smallest of spaces can be transformed into a thriving kitchen garden or wildlife sanctuary, while also engaging and inspiring young people in the wonderful world of plants and nature.
Here we share our top tips on creating a thriving plot for your school garden
Designing your school garden
Look at your site. How big is it? What type of soil do you have? How much of the garden is in light or shade? 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, in which case what plants are best for attracting bees and butterflies? Many pollinator friendly plants are not only beautiful but can help teach children about the importance of these insects and how they play a part in our lives.
Or will it be a sensory garden that seeks to illicit a particular response from visitors? For example, plants and herbs with a lovely scent or grasses and ferns that are interesting to touch and make swishing sounds can help engage children in the environment around them.
Maybe you want to create an edible garden so that pupils can enjoy the fruits of their labour or share their produce with the rest of the school by donating it to the kitchen staff. Many edible crops can be grown in pots or containers so even those with little space can have a productive kitchen garden. Children will love sowing plants from seed, watching them grow and then have the chance to taste the different crops – we find children are more likely to try fruit or veg they’ve grown themselves than produce bought in a shop.
Think about any structural elements you’d like to include. Ponds are one of the most engaging additions to any school garden and even the smallest of ponds can create a thriving ecosystem, perfect for lessons on lifecycles or for a session on pond dipping. Bug hotels are also a staple in most school gardens and can be made at no cost. A pile of old pallets can make the perfect structure and children will have great fun filling the gaps with moss, leaves, bamboo canes and pine cones before waiting for visitors to arrive.
The RHS Campaign for School Gardening website provides lots of resources that that will help you choose plants for different types of garden and advice on how to build structural elements in the garden.
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. 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 to help you reduce, reuse and recycle whenever possible. Upcycled sinks, old toys or wellies can make great planters and reusing plastic bottles or pots in the garden can teach children the importance of recycling. In fact, one of our most popular online resources shows schools how to make a fully functioning greenhouse all from recycled plastic bottles!
Will it be organic? Chemicals are best avoided where there is the possibility of children either attempting to eat their produce or putting fingers in their mouths. Slugs can be a pest in the garden and it can be tempting to use pellets to get rid of them but really nothing beats getting a team of children together to pick the slugs off or you could try out different natural slug barriers such as bark chips, egg shells and copper tape as a fun experiment to see which works best for you.
Choose plants suitable for your site and conditions – for example if you have a shaded plot it’s unlikely that tomatoes and sunflowers will thrive – instead turn to forest favourites like ferns and forget-me-nots for variety. This may take a little more time, but it will be worth it in the long run.
Consider those with special needs in your design
Consider the design of entrances, outdoor paths and hard surfaces to maximise accessibility.
Make the paths wide enough for wheelchairs (at least 120cm or 180cm so that two wheelchairs can pass). Materials used for the surfaces of paths need to be firm, even and nonslip – self-binding gravel is less harsh than tarmac or concrete.
Implementing your plan
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. Children can think up the most wonderful ideas and although not everything can be implemented, it might spark a great idea that will be loved by all.
Make sure labels with the names of the plants are written in a large, easy-to-read font. You could even get the children to make the labels or signs.
Establish a group to progress the project and maintain the garden – people within the school community may well have gardening skills and want to help!
Schools can sign up for free resources and advice from the RHS Campaign for School Gardening at: schoolgardening.rhs.org.uk