So you’ve decided to create a food garden - great! Now, how to get started? It is important to build a team, determine your goals, evaluate available resources, and create a plan. Important considerations include sunlight, soil, water, slope, and location, to name a few. After choosing an ideal garden site, draw up a design, create a materials list and a budget. Consider starting small and expanding the garden in phases, if necessary. For additional information, check out Sustainable Food Center’s School Garden Start-up Guide and the Center for EcoLiteracy’s Guide for Creating School Gardens as Outdoor Classrooms.
1. Create a Team
Cast the net wide, and invite teachers, parents, community members, maintenance staff, cafeteria staff, neighboring business owners, etc to join your garden team. Establish regular meetings at a consistent date, time, and location (e.g. every 3rd Monday at 3pm in the library). Invite a diverse group of stakeholders to foster ownership and buy-in as well as increase your garden team’s pool of skills and talents.
With your team, think through the following questions to create your vision:
- What is the purpose of your garden?
- How many students will use the garden?
- Will it be during school time or after?
- Who will do the maintenance?
- Is it a year-round garden or seasonal?
- What resources do you need to get started and how will you get those resources?
- Who will hold funds?
- How will you use the produce?
- Will it need to be accessible to students of all needs?
2. Inventory site
- Location: Are there any special considerations for the area where you’re envisioning your food garden? Is the space used for weekend soccer games by the community? Is it in an area that receives potentially contaminated drainage from a road? Do children stampede through the area on their way to recess? Is it close to a walking path where dogs or animals may relieve themselves? Research your site’s history and always be sure to consult the school’s master plan. If you are an AISD school, you must first fill out AISD’s Application for Schoolyard Improvement Projects and submit a work order to have the application reviewed before building anything.
- Sun exposure: While having shade to rest under nearby may seem like a good idea, shade does not benefit most vegetables. A common mistake for beginner vegetable gardeners is to plant in an area that doesn’t receive enough sun. Most vegetable crops need full sun: 6-8 hours of direct sunlight each day. Some plants, like tomatoes and peppers, could use a break from the Central Texas afternoon summer sun (after they get the recommended amount), but crops grown in the spring, fall, or winter, such as carrots or broccoli, need full sun. Gardens should face south, as the sun makes an arc in the southern portion of the sky in the Northern Hemisphere. Note that the sun makes a lower arc in the southern sky during the winter and will cast different shadows. Always observe your garden site to be aware of any shade cast by buildings, trees, or other objects throughout the day. Lastly, never attempt to grow a vegetable or flower garden within the root zone of any large shade tree. Not only will the canopy shade the garden but the tree is far more efficient at taking up water than any small garden plant.
- Soil: It’s important to understand the quality of the soil at the garden location to determine its capacity to grow food. The easiest way to start is simply by digging in. Do you find that the soil is relatively easy to dig in? Is it moist and crumbly with an earthy smell? Or, is it extremely hard, rocky, or sandy? Is it an orange-brown sandy builder’s fill? Most developed sites, like school campuses, have had the soil disturbed and the top layer of organic matter removed. Additionally the soil may have been compacted. If you have moderately healthy soil, you can build an in-ground bed and amend the soil with organic matter. If your soil is not healthy, you can build a raised bed and fill it with soil and organic matter. A raised bed will also accommodate those in wheelchairs if made high enough (ADA regulations for K-12 schools). It is important to plan and budget for adding organic matter to your beds such as compost (e.g. composted food scraps or leaf litter). Organic matter retains water and nourishes the microorganisms that make for a healthy soil. In filling raised beds, it is better to fill with a true soil as opposed to a gravel mixture with added manure and bark. You can amend the gravel mixture by adding organic material every year at a rate of 30% to 50% of the original gravel mixture volume. For additional info on soil quality, you can test your soil. Texas A&M offers affordable soil testing services and you can always perform a soil sedimentation test on your own to understand the soil type.
- Water: Make sure you have a nearby, convenient source of suitable irrigation water for your garden - potable municipal water. If a water line is not already located close enough to the selected location for the food garden, talk to the school administrators to see if a hose bib could be added to existing water lines near the garden. Making it easy to water is crucial. In addition to a reliable source of water, consider installing drip irrigation in your garden beds and a rainwater collection system to capture rainwater off of a nearby structure, such as a shed.
- Slope: If there is a slope to the site this will affect the sun exposure and how fast the site drains after a rain or after being irrigated. Examine the slope of the ground in your garden site. Is it relatively flat (0-5%)? If so, you can probably succeed growing directly in the ground. A west facing sloped garden will receive more sun and dry out faster than an east facing sloped garden. A gentle south facing slope is ideal for both sun exposure and drainage. Steep slopes will have soil erosion and should be terraced to create a level growing area.
3. Create a design
It is a good idea to plan ahead for the types of plants you want to grow and determine how much space each plant or row of plants will need. A very good system for growing as much as possible in a small garden is the Square Foot Design (see www.sfgplanner.com). To create a simple design, use Google Earth to take a photo of your future garden site. Print it out, and use tracing paper on top of the photo to experiment with different layouts of beds and other infrastructure. Always take into account permanent structures (buildings, trees, fences) as well as flows of people and uses. Consider access for both people, trucks, wheelbarrows, wheelchairs, etc. For wheelchairs, pathways should be smooth and be four feet wide with a five foot turning radius. For both in-ground and raised beds, build beds no wider than three to four feet to accommodate the length of students’ arms and make harvesting and weeding easier. Be sure to include the entire garden team and other stakeholders in the design process to foster inclusivity and gain new ideas.
4. Create a materials list
Brainstorm a list of materials you’ll need for building the garden and maintaining it. What will you use for your bed borders - wood, limestone, or bricks? Will you use containers for growing plants such as herbs, greens, or potatoes? Will you need materials for pathways? Remember to choose materials that are appropriate for the Central TX climate and suitable for growing food (avoid treated wood for toxicity and metal, as it tends to increase soil temperature). Hand tools that are indispensable to a gardener are a spade shovel for digging narrow holes and transplanting, a dirt shovel, a metal rake for leveling the soil and separating out debris and rocks, and a four tine fork for loosening the soil. A high quality hose with a spray nozzle will be needed for gentle watering, and a hose rack will keep it tidy. Watering cans are useful for spot watering and for liquid fertilizer solutions. A tool shed or chest should be a priority as it will protect your tools and keep your garden area tidy and safe. The side of a tool shed can also be a great place to add a whiteboard and signage, and the roof can be a surface from which to capture rainwater. If deer or other animals can munch on your garden, budget for a tall fence or at least strong plastic netting. If you would like to cook or sample the produce on-site, budget for cutting boards, knives, bowls, other kitchen utensils. A table and seating will also come in handy for teaching and community events. Down the line, consider adding a rainwater harvesting system, a compost system, and a greenhouse.
5. Create a budget
Remember to plan ahead for both one-time costs to build the garden as well as ongoing operational costs of expanding or maintaining the garden. Look for free or low-cost materials at garage sales or at the Austin Habitat for Humanity ReStore. Repair/replace wooden handles and learn to clean and oil the metal parts often for longevity. Budget for more expensive items such as a new hose made from materials safe for food crops and high-quality compost and mulch. Start plants from seed rather than buying seedlings. Request donations from local businesses and apply for grants (see Funding Resources page).