Something remarkable is happening all around Bristol. Children grow their own food and learn about sustainable living in school gardens. Afterschool and summer programs include gardening activities in their enrichment programming. Children snack on kale like it’s chips and proudly proclaim that they are farmers! Teachers bring lessons to life by incorporating experiential learning activities with lessons in teamwork, problem solving, science, health and math. The kids literally eat it up.

What does it take to make these spaces so successful? The most fundamental needs to create and maintain a learning garden are: people, space, time and money.

The most important element of a successful learning garden is a willing group, led by knowledgeable adults to support garden efforts and guide the project. Local superstars have sponsored some spectacular gardens created by children. Mike Sheffield at Sullivan East High School and Tonja Leonard at the YWCA NETN and SWVA TechGYRLS are school garden champions who have trained hordes of tiny farmers who enthusiastically participate in every stage of the plant life cycle.

Having space to grow is necessary for a productive garden. Each school garden is uniquely suited to their specific location, student needs, and goals. Some gardens are in the beginning stages, while others have evolved and expanded over time. Some have limited space allowing only small box beds and others have greenhouses or other facilities. The children especially enjoy artistically decorating the space to create their own one-of-a-kind, engaging and whimsical outdoor classroom to explore.

Another factor of a thriving garden is dedicating time to spend caring for it. Fortunately, teams of students reduces the time needed, because a well organized group can accomplish a great deal in just a few minutes each week. Coordinating children to complete a task can be challenging, but it helps to break into smaller teams. Have each child do a bit of each task so everyone gets to try everything. Splitting the garden evenly among the kids ensures each has their own mini plot to tend. An energetic, motivated team can do wonders.

Money is needed in a school garden, because feeding children costs money. Strategically investing in school gardens will support sustainability and provide the next generation with valuable life skills that can only be learned hands-on. Gardens can even be used for fundraiser projects to offset costs. Gardening teachers and their students should be well funded and able to keep spending time in the impressive outdoor spaces they create.

All it takes for a garden to thrive is people, space, time and money. Teachers and students invest their time building and tending garden spaces provided by the school. The community can provide support in these wonderful gardens and ensure every child has the opportunity to learn this vital skill. Support school gardening efforts by donating money for plants and supplies, or by buying from garden fundraisers.

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Della McGuire is an Agriculture Education VISTA specialist with Appalachian Sustainable Development. She can be emailed at

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