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School Gardens for Beginners:  Advice from Common Ground’s Jill Keating Herbst

School garden programs are on the rise: certainly a growing trend!  Teachers and academic communities across the globe are capitalizing upon the hands-on experience, curricular connections, and natural engagement these projects can inspire in students.  However, to the agricultural novice and green thumb alike, the idea of initiating such an endeavor can certainly feel daunting.

Recently, Education World had the opportunity to chat with a colleague and seasoned professional in the world of connecting gardens to the classroom, Common Ground High School, Urban Farm, and Environmental Education Center’s Jill Keating Herbst.  A certified elementary and middle school science teacher, Keating Herbst has been the Program Manager for the School Garden Resource Center and K-8 school programs in New Haven, Connecticut, for years, after an era with “a variety of environmental and farm education organizations from Florida to California to Vermont.”  Her School Garden Resource Center is currently partnered with 12 schools in the New Haven area, actively working with over 15 site-based garden projects.  In short, she’s the guru of the green scene.  Although it takes some work, Keating Herbst suggests that with the right planning and community involvement, these gardens can not only be manageable, but quickly become an essential part of any K-12 curriculum.

School gardens are popping up everywhere now, why do you think that is?

I think it’s coming from all different directions.  I think overall there’s a food movement.  A lot of the motivation comes from frustration with the cafeteria food mandates, even though often the school garden does not directly influence the cafeteria.  It’s, “Okay, we can’t change where our food is coming from, but we can grow food and then introduce kids to fresh produce in that way…through special events and education.”  Very seldom, however, can you have a school garden that is supplying food for the cafeteria. 

One thing that we talk a lot about – especially at the elementary schools – is not necessarily in terms of food and nutrition, but process-based science.  And especially now with GSS and looking at science skills, not just in terms of content, outdoor classrooms are a really great opportunity to put that into practice.

What are some of the benefits you’ve noticed in your work with integrating a garden into the classroom?

In a classroom or in a school community, there’s this bigger thing that I find occurs, which is ownership over the school yard.  Student-driven projects and students having ownership over their education – gardens offer this opportunity.  In some cases, adults are building the garden, and then students are just going out to plant, but they are seeing this process, start to finish.  We had one school that came here on field trips for two years with students, just planning and preparing for a garden.  They interviewed us, went on a field trips, took notes, and they did all the initial research for everything that they would need to put in their garden.  And then finally built it together.  Now they are in the process of integrating it into the greater school community.  This is what we’ve realized:  the science curriculum, kids getting outside, food, nutrition education…all these things happen and are really great, but it’s this school community piece that emerges, and this is the piece that needs long-term support.

We ran a focus group last year with another school that we’ve been working with for several years on both their vegetable garden and their square habitat.  In that research, we saw a huge increase in morale around the project, as well as a general consensus where teachers were thrilled to have the opportunity and support to teach outside.  There’s also some really good data that comes from Food Corps around health impacts and food choices due to the existence of school gardens. 

On top of that, there are just so many connections to the curriculum that is already being taught – often in many rote ways – that could be taught outside.  For example, in New Haven, every second grader does an entire unit on soil.  It’s a big unit; like a quarter of their science year.  The kits that they use – they have these kits that circulate around the district – include these four cups of soil, and they compare them.  It’s good.  They’re data collecting and practicing all of these skills, but we do a program here where they come and they’re comparing the garden soil, and the forest soil, and the field soil…and we see there’s a big difference between looking at these cups of dirt that have been traveling around New Haven for years, and the living soil.  Light bulbs go off in their heads.  We’ve now trained teachers to be able to do these lessons in their school gardens.

Okay.  I’m new to this process, and I would like to start a garden.  What is the step-by-step process of starting a school garden for a teacher who might also be somewhat intimidated by the idea?

The first thing that we tell teachers is to build a team.  Don’t do this by yourself.  It needs to be sustainable.  That team should consist of not just teachers, not just parents, not just administration, but a little bit of everyone – including students.  Make sure you have your building manager involved: somebody who manages the site, so they can answer those questions.  You should meet regularly.  Even if you’re not going to build the garden until next year. 

Then establish what your goals are for the garden.  And make sure they are realistic goals.  If your goal is to grow all the food for the cafeteria, that’s not very realistic.  We hear that a lot.  What is your school community going to use this space for?  And be creative!

Take inventory of your team.  What are your strengths?  What are you bringing to the table now?  What are you excited about?  And then: what are you missing?  And where can you fill that in from the community?  That’s where community partners come in.  We often hear, “We know where we want to integrate it into our curriculum.  We’re ready to do that; we don’t need help with that.  But we actually don’t have a garden.”  Or, “We actually don’t have the funding.”  Then, it becomes:  Who do we reach out to for support in this process?

After that, it really becomes about developing an action plan.  You bring in the resources you need, look at a calendar, see where it fits into the year, and try to meet everyone’s needs.  Building the garden is step 7, or maybe 15.  There’s so much to do before that, in terms of solidifying the plan.

What are some of the common pitfalls to starting these gardens?  What are the challenges a teacher new to this process might not be able to predict?

Communication and teamwork.  Sometimes a particular party in the team might feel much more invested in the process, and this leads to misunderstandings.  For example, if parents have too much ownership in creating these gardens, teachers don’t always know if they can use the garden – or vice versa.  Having a plan to communicate garden usage to the rest of the school and community is absolutely essential.

Sustainability.  If people leave the community (be it teachers, parents, students, etc.), the garden goes to waste.  This is why it needs to be a diverse team.  You want your garden to be sustainable through the years.  If you have the ability at a school or district level, writing it directly into the curriculum can do a lot in terms of keeping that garden alive and a part of the community.

Check your site regulations.  Once you have a site in mind, touch base with your site manager to make sure all safety protocols are taken into consideration.  For example, if you’re building near a playground or community space, some local regulations might affect how that garden gets built. 

Test your soil.  Even if you’re doing raised-bed gardens, this is key.  Beware of contaminated soil; beware of bad soil.  Although everything is a learning experience, it can also be demotivating for a team to see a garden fail.  Sometimes adults in the school community will start a garden first to see if it works out before integrating it into the curriculum, too.

Know where your water is.  This seems simple.  But the truth is, if it’s too far from the site, people are going to be less likely to maintain it properly.  These are the details that needs to be closely examined with your team.  Don’t take anything for granted.

What was the best curricular connection to a garden you’ve seen?

A seventh grade standard in New Haven relates to food preservation – a part of their microbes unit.  One school had a courtyard garden, and their classrooms encircled it.  A science teacher would plant cucumbers every spring with her eighth graders for the seventh graders to use in their food preservation unit, making pickles.  It was a really great connection, because they would see the whole process through.  It was timed really well, too, seasonally. 

The most successful projects are the ones where every grade has a job that’s connected somehow to the curriculum.  First grade might open the garden up because they studied soil.  Second grade studied seeds, so they might do a planting.  Third grade does a plant anatomy. Fourth grade does land and water.  Make it a part of the curriculum, but also use it to build a community.

Jill recommends some of the following resources for your team to start their garden research:

Edible Schoolyard

A network of sustainable education resources based in California.

Shelburne Farms

Shelburne Farms is a nonprofit education organization whose mission is to cultivate a conservation ethic for a sustainable future. Their curriculum guide Project Seasons is a wonderful resource.

Facing the Future

A nonprofit leader whose mission is to create tools for educators that motivate students to develop critical thinking skills, build global awareness, and engage in positive solutions for a sustainable future.

Grow to Learn NYC

The Citywide School Garden Initiative established to inspire, facilitate and promote the creation of a sustainable school garden in each and every public school across New York City.


Life Lab is a national leader is farm-and garden-based education- based in Santa Cruz, CA

Common Ground’s School Garden Resource Center

Jill’s organization with the Common Ground community, offering advice, resources, and lessons to integrate into your school’s curriculum.


Written by Keith Lambert, Education World Contributor

Lambert is an English / Language Arts teacher and teacher trainer in Connecticut.