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.
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:
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.
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.
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).