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School Garden Planning Checklist

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Checklist for Starting a School Garden

Check off or fill in the blanks. Any place you don’t know the answer is where the trouble is likely to come from.


School gardens rise and fall on the relationships of the people who make them happen. Cultivate the relationships like care for the soil. We have found that the best “way of being” is to “become water” and flow into the areas where it is possible to start. Particularly where administrators have had bad experiences – like parents making a garden, moving on, and leaving a weed patch – fighting or pressing will just make things worse. If they don’t care about nutrition but they’re into history, start with a colonial herb garden and teach colonial times, the kids will find plenty to eat while they’re out there.

_____ Administrator: Non-negotiable. Principals can approve or deny teacher training time, determine the use of space, dedicate funds. It is very important to know what he/she cares about and communicate effectively.

_____ Teachers: At least a few with buy-in is non-negotiable. Even if teachers do not drive the garden, they will decide if the children will use the garden. It is very important to know what they care about and make sure the garden provides what they need to be successful.

_____ Students: Assumed. Students bring the energy and excitement that make the garden a natural for hands-on learning. Older students can be a great source of labor. Request parents or other adults volunteer some time assisting at after school garden club and workdays to learn with and from the children, their excitement is contagious!

_____ The Coordinator: The buck-stops-here-person, non-negotiable. Who is the identified person or small group that will deal with the life or death issues of a living classroom when details fall through the cracks or assignments are not clear?

_____ Parents: At least a few are helpful but may not be necessary. Many of the tasks can be performed by anyone who is willing to devote the time, but only teachers and administrators decide if the children will use the garden. Parents can provide moral, technical, and labor support through the PTA and volunteering.

_____ Cafeteria staff or food service: May not be necessary for sustaining the garden, but should be on the team if food and nutrition education or garden-to-table are priorities.

______School Garden Agent: Provides on-site consultations, community gardening resources, and workshop trainings. Can be a liaison between your school and the countywide school gardening community. Email Crystal Mercer for more info.

_____ Local Farmers: Again, they may not be necessary to sustain an instructional garden, but if improved cafeteria food is part of your vision, farm to school is in your future.

_____ Community Volunteers: Helpful but may not be necessary. Gardens attract attention from the community. There may be a lot of talent in the form of garden clubs, Master Gardeners, potential donors of gifts and services. If none of the school insiders understand the horticultural needs of the garden, this will have to come from the community.

_____ Custodian: This May not be necessary, but he or she should be on the team to be sure certain maintenance requirements are met.

_____ Media Specialist: This May not be necessary, but the librarian is a great ally of the process.


_____ Specify what the garden is for. If several people are in it for different reasons, can they agree on the purposes of creating a garden? Are the priorities science curriculum, food production, waste reduction, watershed education, beautification, improving nutritional status, learning where food comes from, history lessons, or spontaneous learning? What does each of the stakeholders want out of the process?

_____ Specify the values that drive the garden. For example, will it be organic, will commercial fertilizers be allowed. You may need this later to help decide from whom you will or will not accept donations.


_____ Space, flat is best

_____   Be sure there is no problem related to wells, septic systems, in-ground tanks.

_____   Call 811 for utility companies to mark underground line locations.

_____    Sun, at least 6 hours a day. Place a sheet of paper in what you think is a sunny spot and record the sunlight hours through the day.

_____ Water, the closer the water source the better. Consider mulching to reduce use.

_____ Proximity to classrooms, the closer the more it’s used.

_____ Shelter: Protected by walls and fences best to reduce vandalism and deer damage.

_____   Area for containers, if space is very limited.

_____ No competition from trees and roots for water, soil and sun.

_____ Start small. Make it beautiful. Have a vision for how it will expand.


_____ Make a map. It will have many uses including mapping crop rotation.

_____ Make sure you can afford the design you want or have a means of raising the money.

Elements for designing the garden as an outdoor classroom include:

_____  Garden beds, 3-4 feet wide, with clear wide pathways for trampling feet. 8-12 feet wide.

_____ A sitting area, including tables, preferably out of the harsh sun.

_____    Compost area.

_____ Toolshed or storage area.

_____   Cold frames or greenhouse, if using them.

_____   Good signs.

_____   Fencing if needed.

_____   Scheduling classes.

_____   Instructional materials (lenses, books, field guides, seeds and starting materials, scales,     measuring devices).


You can spend from $300 if you get a lot of the material donated to $16,000 for a perfect, commercially installed ready-to-plant garden. In any event, if your funds are limited, the majority of the effort should go into soil preparation. Every site is different, but be sure to cover the basic elements when making up the budget:

  1. Expenses related to locating it (making water reach the garden, clearing land, tilling the first year)
  2. Soil test kit and amendments
  3. The organic material to improve soil, compost
  4. Tools
  5. Means of watering
  6. Materials for raised beds, if using
  7. Seeds, starts, plants
  8. Supports
  9. Protections, fencing, row covers
  10. Fertilizers
  11. Pest controls, if using
  12. Instructional materials, field guides, books
  13. Expertise, if the volunteers are beginners
  14. Material for walkways
  15. Cold frames, greenhouse
  16. Mulch
  17. Containers
  18. Labor

Soil Preparation

Decisions will have to be made that you’ll have to live with for a while. You may want a few raised beds the first year while you start composting and working your own soil. You may want to plant a fall crop of green manure, like winter rye, to improve the soil. Attention to the soil is the most important point of starting a garden unless you are purchasing perfect soil for raised beds. You will want to add lots of organic material (compost) and you will want to start with a soil test to guide your decisions. Rototilling may be necessary the first year. Soil preparation is beyond the scope of this checklist; take it seriously. Here is a good link:

Horticultural Needs

In addition to the obvious sun, water, and space needs, each plant has specific requirements.

_____  Did you do a soil test? It will inform you about toxic materials in the soil and deficiencies. If not, do one, unless you are purchasing perfect soil for raised beds in which case you will still need to fertilize. In most counties, Master Gardeners man a helpline and can interpret the results. In Guilford County: 375-5876.

_____ Do you know the needs for amendments, based on the soil test?

_____  Timing the startup. Don’t start working soil until a handful crumbles nicely in spring. If it is still in sodden clumps, it’s too early; you’ll ruin the soil structure.

_____  How is the garden oriented? You want to face south, with tall plants on the north side and short plants on the south side to maximize sunlight hours.

_____ Buy or order seeds and plants with consideration to planting dates and needs of different plants. Read the labels.

_____ Tools: Very few tools are actually required, but gadget lovers could go nuts on tools. Depending on how many children will be working at a time, you’ll need multiple rakes, shovels, trowels, clippers, scissors, hose, forks for turning soil and compost, a mallet for pounding in stakes, wire clipper, measuring tape, thermometers for air and compost).

_____ Supports: What are your needs for trellises, ladders, etc.

_____ Maintenance schedule: watering, weeding, staking, fertilizing, pruning, bug picking, turning compost, mulching, cover crop planting in fall.

_____   Schedule workdays for volunteers.

_____   Harvesting and subsequent planting in the emptied bed.

_____  Crop rotation schedule.

_____ Schedule orders

Curriculum Needs

_____ Must this garden provide a setting for learning things that have to be taught or is it more a setting for spontaneous learning, both?

_____ Are the curriculum interests of the participating teachers well represented in the design?

_____ Have a means of collecting, storing, and sharing good garden lessons.

_____ Match to State education standards. The more of this that is done, the easier it is for teachers to participate. With variation by district, their lives are more or less driven by standards in the public schools.

Types of Gardens

For elementary schools, the biggest bang for the curriculum buck is an herb garden. You can combine many elements into one garden. Your garden could be:

  • A science lab.
  • A setting for spontaneous learning.
  • Food production, “snack” destination, the source for foodservice.
  • History garden (Shakespeare, colonial, Three Sisters).
  • Herb Garden.
  • Shade plant garden.
  • Native grasses and plants garden.
  • Butterfly or pollinator garden.
  • Ecosystem.
  • Heirloom garden.
  • Nutrition and Health.
  • Flowers.
  • Math garden, perhaps raised beds.

Safety Rules

_____ Set up the rules that protect the people. For example:

  • Use of senses for plant identification
  • Don’t eat anything until you are sure it is food.
  • Know which plants have both edible and poisonous parts (leaves of rhubarb and the tomato plants themselves)
  • Know which children have allergies to plants, pollen, or stings and act accordingly
  • Keep a supply of sunscreen (know if anyone is allergic).
  • In high heat, have kids wear hats and shirts with sleeves If there is an after school club when no nurse is on duty, have all parents signed off, all allergies recorded, a first aid kit on hand and drinking water No bare feet or flip flops, proper shoes to protect from cuts and stings Add only plant materials to compost
  •  When using tools stay your arm’s length plus the tool length away from the next person Walk while holding tools and or identify which tools are for adults only Discuss pest controls and why we use what we use

_____ Set up rules that protect the plants, For example:

  • Keep feet on pathways
  • Use two hands to pick plants so you don’t uproot them, one is to hold the plant and the other is to nip off
  • Discuss pest controls, keeping the gate shut
  • Have 3 kids on the hoses, and rotate positions so one is controlling the water and two are preventing the hose from knocking over the plants

Community Outreach and Involvement

_____ Consider what funds, goods, expertise, and services do not come from within the school community and whether you want the donation of a thing (for example, tools or machinery) or the service (for example, roto-tilling).

_____ If your garden is about food, see if you can get local restaurants involved with cooking, restaurant tours, tastings, and fundraisers.

_____ Reach out to the greater community to help meet these needs. Local green businesses in Greensboro have loved the PR value of supporting these projects generously.

_____ Consider who will take photographs and write press releases or letters to the editor. Be sure to follow school policy about parental permission to use images.

_____ Consider how you will inform parents and the school community about the garden activity.

_____ Consider your system for requesting and thanking donors.

_____ Identify the talent in the community, garden clubs, Master Gardeners, environmental groups, environmental groups at the other schools in the district, 4-H, parents, and friends with gifts for carpentry or other services.


_____  Plan seasonal events, scripted tours for the public, tomato tastings, pesto day, colonial day fair, tea harvest and drying, harvest dinner, poetry readings, garden tours, and fundraisers like plant sales.

Challenges to Consider Before You Start

_____ People move on. (If the garden is dependent on the goodwill of too few people, the principal may be left with a weed patch when those folks move on. Tell the principal upfront what the exit strategy is so he or she can feel comfortable saying yes to a garden.)

_____  Bad Soil. Raise the beds. Even where there are toxins in the soil, a sufficiently raised bed with purchased soil produces safe food.

_____  Summer care. Offer parents and volunteers picking rights and designate an area for them to grow food in exchange for summer volunteer hours. Or plant spring and fall but not summer harvest crops and vastly reduce the needs of the garden during summer break.

_____  Payments. The P.O. system at school may be too slow to deal with the immediacy of garden needs. Consider store credit or an account at the local nursery. They may give you a discount. This method greatly reduces your bookkeeping needs.

Modified from:  ©2009 Dorothy Mullen – All Rights Reserved.