How to Grow a School Garden

bountyTwo weeks ago, students returned to their St. Joseph School in Wilmette to find the playground transformed.


Ten-foot sunflowers lined a chain-link fence, while winged gourd vines and trombetta squash plants carpeted the ground. Heirloom beans, herbs, Swiss chard and zucchini plants overflowed from the raised beds set in a series of 6-foot farm tractor tires.

A path spelled out the alphabet in mosaic stepping stones made from discarded granite tiles, beads and china.

dirtdiggersGardens are the all rage, with plots sprouting at schools nationwide in the last few years. St. Joseph’s Trailblazer Eden, named after the school mascot, shows what parents can do on a shoestring budget.

After proposing the idea at a Green Team meeting, the idea took on a life of its own. We quickly lined up a dozen volunteers, soil donations, briefed the teachers and had plans to create a Wiki to chart the garden’s progress.

Our biggest expense would be the raised beds, necessary because the plot had poor soil on an incline. Finally, one of the owners of West End Florist & Garden Center in Evanston gave us our solution.

“They are hard to find, but farm tractor tires make great raised beds,” he said.

After tons of research and chatting with a half dozen farm tractor dealers in area, we finally struck rubber.

A Friday morning in May, a truck from Meier Bros. Tire Supply pulled up and offloaded the tires, donating and delivering them for free. That weekend, a team of parents finished off the installation, drilling the tires and adding gravel for drainage.

The kids took over, planting everything, adding the mulch and creating the stone path, a project by the fourth-grade Girl Scout Troop. Parents and teachers took turns watering and harvesting over the summer.


At the picnic students scrambled between the tires, watering the plants with compost tea and stuffing beans in their pockets.

“Planting is better than picking because you get more,” exclaimed a third grader, as he jammed bean seeds into the dirt.

I laughed, not caring that he was planting them in the lettuce patch, and smiled to myself, knowing our hard work had been worth it.

How to start a garden at your school

  • Check out the local garden clubs to see if they have advice or grants available. We were able to secure a $50 grant from the Wilmette Garden Club.
  • Spatially challenged? offers advice on how to raise plentiful crops in tight spaces.
  • Sunshine deficient? If an area is part shade, there are a number of vegetables that will still grow successfully, including Swiss chard, lettuces, peas, beans, herbs, broccoli and celery.

Consult these local experts:
The Chicago Botanic Garden has a Community Gardening outreach department. The School Garden Wizard on its Web site explains how to get started and how to integrate the garden into the classroom.

Cook County Farm Bureau provides resources for teachers. provides information about school gardening grants, teacher curricula and other resources.

School Garden Weekly for weekly instructional activities for school gardens

Renee’s Garden—a great source of heirloom seeds and growing instructions.

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