Monday, January 8, 2024

Starting A Gardening Club: Tips for Program Leaders

Source: Healthy Food Choices in School 

By Sam Piha

For program leaders wanting to incorporate gardening into their programs, it is helpful to learn from others, which can include visiting other programs. Below we offer tips from practitioners that may be useful. (Note: Our series of blog posts on gardening in afterschool are excerpts from a larger briefing paper entitled, Gardening in Afterschool Programs.) 

The Healthy Food Choices in Schools organization offers several tips for those considering a gardening club or project:

“Many students participate in after school activities to extend their learning opportunities and spend more time with friends during the day. Afterschool garden clubs provide a great way for students to learn about gardening and gain hands-on experience growing their own food and tasting the fruits (and vegetables!) of their labor.

Pick your space: Every garden needs sun, soil, and water. Pick your ideal sun or shade garden location on school grounds, giving thought to your need to deliver items like loads of soil and seedlings, and your access to drinkable water. Other things to consider are whether you need space to push a wheelbarrow, and if you have storage nearby for garden tools. Give yourself time for construction of any raised or in-ground beds, and for bed preparation. 

Pick your growing season: Decide if you want to host a fall garden club, a spring garden club, or a year-round club, and decide how frequently your club will meet. During the warmer gardening months, a lot can happen in a week! Pick your crops based on season, and length of growing time. Students will be most excited to see crops go from seedlings to fruit stage, and then to harvest. 

Source: Smithsonian Gardens

Water: Your garden will need water—lots of water. Make sure that you have access to a hose that provides drinkable water throughout the garden season. It’s a good idea to create a watering schedule and have backups

Safety first: All in-ground garden spaces should have the soil tested for lead and other contaminants prior to planting. One exception is if you are starting a container garden and using bagged soil and organic matter that you know to be free of contaminants. When adding soil to your garden beds, be sure it is an appropriate soil mix for growing produce. Also consider whether your garden needs fencing to keep out deer, rabbits, raccoons, or other critters that enjoy fresh produce. You will want to ensure that anything you put on the garden is safe for children to handle, and that the produce will be safe to eat. Use of manure and pesticides are not acceptable practices for youth gardens.

Gather supplies: Make a wish list of your garden supplies and circulate it to your school community. You will likely get many hand shovels, rakes, and buckets. School fundraisers are another great way to get funds for larger items like wood for bed construction, wheelbarrows, hoses, and fencing. Local businesses may be willing to donate supplies, and many organizations have grant funding available for school garden projects. A minimal list to get started includes soil, seedlings/seeds, a hose, shovels, and gloves for participants.

Choose a theme: Remember that the garden is more than just a growing space—it is an outdoor classroom. Many students enjoy growing gardens that have themes. Popular ones include pizza gardens, herb gardens, butterfly/pollinator gardens, and native plant gardens. You can also create an ABC garden, a math garden, storybook garden, or international garden to reinforce classroom concepts. Have students decorate the garden with creative signage.

Manage expectations: Gardening is a wonderful learning experience. It is also an exercise in patience, trial and error, and working with uncontrollable variables like the weather. Visit other school gardens for ideas and inspiration, and get the students involved from the start..” [1]

“By incorporating a garden into an afterschool program, educators can create a dynamic and enriching environment that promotes active learning, fosters a connection with nature, and encourages positive health and environmental habits among participants.” [2]

Additional tips for incorporating a garden into an afterschool program are offered by Damon Carr (Farming the Future):

Engage Stakeholders: Involve parents, teachers, and community members in the planning process to build support and ensure the garden aligns with the afterschool program's goals. 

Start Small: Begin with a manageable garden space and simple gardening activities, gradually expanding as the program gains momentum and student interest grows. 

Design Theme Gardens: Create theme gardens, such as a sensory garden or a pollinator garden, to provide diverse learning opportunities and sensory experiences. 

Tailor Activities: Adapt gardening activities to accommodate various age groups and abilities, ensuring that all participants can actively engage in the garden. 

 Source: The Urban Garden Initiative

Hands-On Learning: Use the garden as a hands-on learning environment, incorporating science, math, and environmental lessons into gardening activities. 

Cultivate Creativity: Encourage artistic expression by incorporating garden-related art projects, such as garden sculptures or nature-inspired crafts. 

Healthy Snacks: Use harvested produce to promote healthy eating habits, offering fresh snacks or hosting cooking activities with garden-grown ingredients.  

Environmental Stewardship: Teach students about environmental stewardship and sustainability through composting, water conservation, and eco-friendly gardening practices. 

Garden Journals: Have students keep garden journals to document their experiences, observations, and reflections throughout the gardening journey. 

Community Events: Host garden-related events, such as garden tours, harvest celebrations, or family gardening days, to involve the broader community and showcase the program's impact.” [3]  

For more information or to implement a garden program in your school, contact Damon Carr at:

Partnering with others can be very beneficial. We offer some ideas below:

Community Gardens
According to Smithsonian Gardens, “It is not the first time Americans have turned to community gardens to reshape city life. The community gardens we see in cities today have evolved from a long history. Since the 1890s, Americans have turned to the garden to confront social problems such as economic recession, war, urban decline, and environmental injustice.” [4]

Source: Smithsonian Gardens

“Many urban reformers began to create school gardens for children, particularly those of immigrants and lower-income residents. Educators feared urban life would have negative effect on children. Gardens, they hoped, would be a way to connect youth to nature, teach them responsibility, and improve their physical health.” [5] 

Is there a community garden nearby? If so, consider partnering with the community garden. 

Other Community Partners
Incorporating gardening in an afterschool program can be supported by enlisting partners to assist by donating funds, materials or labor. Partners can include:

  • Nonprofit organizations, such as local garden clubs or community youth organizations.
  • Community businesses, such as nurseries, hardware & lumber stores or businesses that sell gardening supplies.
  • Parents and Individuals from the larger community can provide volunteer labor or donations. They can also serve as gardening experts. 

It is best to involve youth when enlisting partners or funding. Perhaps your youth participants can help identify businesses in the community that might be appropriate for a donation request and deliver the request themselves. Young people can also design posters that identify businesses that support the gardening program, which they can display in a window. Young people can also design and deliver thank you cards for businesses that donate.


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