STARTING A SCHOOL GARDEN PROJECT
By Patti Lovejoy McKee
So you’d like to start a garden at your school! What do you need to do? How do
you get others to help you? Where does the money come from? Where do you begin?
But before anything else is said, it must be mentioned that your project
MUST have one person who is committed enough to see it through from start to finish.
Of course there will be others to help, but there must be that one person who can fully
take the lead on getting it all started and keeping it going.
For me, this project began six years ago, right after I took a grant writing class. I
wrote a few non- garden grants, but soon I began to write grants for a school garden. I
lost more than I won, but the incentive grew after I won a few.
If you are reading this material, I can probably assume that you are the one at
your school who is willing to take the lead and get it all going!
Our project, “The Big Backyard” began six years ago at Williams Elementary
and Technology Middle School in Huntsville, Alabama. Half of the students at Williams
are from military families, and live on Redstone Arsenal. When a Big Backyard Workday
is held, many military families are present. This project has brought military families
together with civilian families, united toward a common goal of creating and sustaining
this beautiful outdoor classroom.
Initially, in 1997, the Big Backyard’s goal was to provide seven garden beds for
each of the grade levels, and one for the special education class. More beds were added
when the middle school opened up. Now the project includes:
Ten garden beds
a wildlife sanctuary with 132 trees and over 100 shrubs that attract wildlife.
Ten large “Nellie Stevens Hollies” that broke the noise from the air conditioners, and
provided shelter for the birds.
two large bird feeding islands.
a large pergola, that would house four wonderful picnic tables
a “Sunflower House,” planted in memory of a faculty member’s son.
a bean teepee
a gourd house
a willow patch
and a handicapped walkway to the garden.
A few years later, a beautiful “Secret Garden” was built with a large loft and many
benches amidst the fragrant trees and flowers.
A. HOW TO DO THIS AT YOUR SCHOOL:
1. Get Permission :
It all started when I asked my principal, Leon McAllister, where we could build
some garden beds. He walked me out to a neglected, two-acre area behind the school that
was next to the school’s huge air conditioning system. This would be the area that would
soon be transformed into a living wildlife sanctuary and outdoor classroom.
2. Identify Financial Resources:
I first took a grant writing class offered at our district office, and spent a month or
so applying for local and national grants. We won the “Youth Garden Grant” with the
National Garden Association. They supplied us with a terrific supply of tools, seeds,
supplies, and other neat goodies! We also won a bank grant (AmSouth) that supplied us
with enough money to keep us going for a few years.
I have learned to always be on the lookout for grant possibilities. They are listed
in newspapers, in periodicals, and through the grapevine! My principal always informs
the faculty at our school of grants opportunities.
About the fourth year, our own PTA agreed to help us with some of the expenses
of the Big Backyard, which has helped a great deal! But, I am still always looking for
grants, donations, or some way to earn some money (plant sales, etc.)! I give all funds to
our school secretary, who put the funds into the “Big Backyard” account at school.
Some of the organizations that have helped to fund this project are listed at the end of this
report. I do hope that this information helps you as you pursue a garden project at your
3. Set a date to begin and secure volunteers:
So, the first step was to find a volunteer with a tractor who would plow an area
where eight garden beds could be installed. A local company loaned a tractor to a driver
and also us! So, one Saturday morning in early July, I showed the tractor driver where to
plow up the hardened grassy area (formerly a cotton field) that would soon be garden
beds! Each grade level (K – 8 and SPED) would soon have their own 12 x 4 foot
I went to a local Master Gardener’s meeting and told them about our vision for
this project, and recruited some help for our first “work day.” Many of the Master
Gardener’s offered valuable advice and many came to the first work day! We all (Master
Gardeners, parents, students, and some teachers) met one Saturday in late July, six years
ago. Volunteers prepared the soil, built the beds, and put up the (donated) storage shed!
Wow! I felt like we were really moving now!
4. Linking the teachers and the Students to the Garden:
Our principal created a committee of teachers called, “The Big Backyard
Committee,” that has one teacher from every grade level assigned to it. That particular
teacher represents his/her grade level. It is in this committee that decisions are made as to
what to plant, maintenance ideas, special projects, etc., are made. These teachers carry
information to their grade level to team, and then back to the classrooms.
5. Create a master plan:
We created our garden project in stages:
One (year one): Planting beds
Two (year two): Wildlife Sanctuary, Pergola, and pond
Three (year three): Sunflower Memorial Garden
Four (four): Demonstration/ Gourd Garden
Five (five): The Secret Garden
6. Find local professional help (your mentors):
It’s so important to find a professional gardener, horticulturist, botanist or a
nursery owner, that shares your vision and is willing to assist you in creating your
project. One of the first things I did after getting some grant money was to visit a few
nurseries and try to recruit some help in exchange for a little publicity. The first few
people I went to were too busy or not interested. But then, I happened upon the CatBird
Seat Nursery in Madison, Alabama. Cory Brown, the owner (and a horticulturist) , and
assistant Karen Voelker (and master gardener, landscape designer and neat lady) were
excited when I told them what I wanted to do at my school! They even had some of their
own ideas they thought would work!
Cory and Karen were willing and eager to help us with the project, which was at
that time, only garden beds (stage one). Karen designed a landscape design for a wildlife
sanctuary for us. Both of them, Cory and Karen, always offered advice and information.
They have both stayed with us, and are still with us, throughout this project! Cory and
Karen are definitely our mentors!
In exchange for his help, we gave Cory’s business as much publicity as we could.
Besides telling other people about Cory’s wonderful business, we gave him our business!
His name and business appeared many times in our school newsletter, in three large
articles in our local paper (with pictures), and he even appeared with me on a local TV
show, which was reporting on the “Big Backyard.”
Another good resource that I have used for advice and information about the “Big
Backyard” is our local “Feed and Seed” store that the local farmers use. They provided
additional advice, told me what farmer’s plant during the different seasons, and sold
seeds to me at very reasonable rates.
7. Organizing Workdays
We knew from the start that regular workdays were needed to “grow our garden”
project and also would be needed to maintain what we had. Huntsville City Schools has
their own landscaping people that can be depended on to mow the lawn, but we would
have to figure a way to keep our own project up and going! So, the “Saturday Work
Days” developed from the very start!
The first year of the “Big Backyard” needed the most workdays, and they
averaged once a month. Now, six years later (since the project is basically finished), we
are averaging about three Saturday workdays a year, not counting the summer months.
Parents, students and teachers are invited to participate via school newsletter, the sign in
front of the school and morning announcements. Volunteers are enticed with the mention
of goodies and an invitation to an after school pizza party the following week.
Before each workday, I had to:
1. List what needed to be done at that workday.
2. list what supplies were needed,
3. Purchase the supplies (to be reimbursed at a later date).
4. Make a list of what needed to be done.
5. Arrange for the building to be open for restroom use.
6. Find someone to pick up the goodies (donated by a local supermarket) on Saturday
8. Summer maintenance:
A plea for help is sent out to all parents via the school newsletter, requesting that
family’s sign up for one-week increments during the summer to primarily water and
weed. These volunteers are contacted by coordinating teacher with dates and instructions.
9. Publicize, thank and acknowledge everyone who donates.
Since the majority of this project depends upon donations, it is not only polite, but
it is of utmost importance to acknowledge donations in writing. This could be in the
school newsletter, on a school bulletin board, newspaper article, personal letter, etc.
Sincerely thanking all individuals and businesses, and acknowledging their efforts
encourages participation and is primary to the success of your entire project.
Be generous and sincere with your gratitude and thanks, and you will find a
community very eager to help your school succeed in a number of ways.
B. Planning Faculty Inservices
Teacher workshops and inservice training that deal with nature, school gardening,
and wildlife teach the teachers how to use the your outdoor classroom, as well as increase
interest and motivation. Please check with the Alabama Department of Conservation,
who offer excellent workshops, and will come to your school to offer inservices.
Also, the E.E.A.A. (Environmental Education Association of Alabama) offers
workshops and grants for teachers. Addresses and phone numbers are listed at the end of
C. Grant Money
You always need to be on the lookout for new grant possibilities. Often, our
principal receives grant opportunities in the mail, and he will route them to interested
teachers. You can inquire about grants at banks, your school district, large corporations,
and even your local Wal-Mart! There is a list of organizations that disperse grant funds at
the end of this report.
One of our main sources of funding in the past few years has been from our local
State Senator Jeff Enfinger. I suggest that you contact your state senator and
inquire about funds that might be provided to schools for special projects.
Contact these organizations for grant and other assistance for your project:
1. Legacy P.O. Box 3818 Montgomery, Al. 36109
2. Toyota Tapestry Grants c/o NTSA 1840 Wilson Blvd. Arlington,
3. Weyerhaeuser Foundation Alabama Recycling Coalition 3163 Fernway Dr.
Montgomery, Al. 36111
4. Youth Garden Grants National Garden Assoc. 800-538-7476 ext. 205
5. Alabama Agriculture in the Classroom Alabama Dept. of Agriculture PO
Box 3336 Montgomery, Al. 36109
6. Environmental Education Association of Alabama PO Box 2152 Huntsville,
7. Alabama Dept. of Conservation Programs, contact Jerry DeBin. 800-
262-3151 ask when he can send someone to your school to teach Project Wet,
Project Wild, Project Learning Tree, and Aquatic Project Wild.
8. National Tree Trust 1120 G Street, NW., Suite 770 Washington, DC.
9. Alabama Power Foundation, Inc.
10. Sea World/ Busch Gardens Environmental Excellence Awards Education
Dept. 7007 Sea World Dr. Orlando, Florida. 32821 407 363-2389
*** I hope this information will help you in starting a wildlife
sanctuary/ outdoor classroom/ garden project at your school! Try
networking with other schools with similar projects. You will most
likely find that most people are willing to share information about
their school’s outdoor project, since the ultimate goal is to have
something like the “Big Backyard” at every school in our nation!
Please contact me if you have any questions: