How To Start a Community Garden at a School (at no cost)

We started a community garden at a school and get asked so often how we got started I thought I would share our journey with you. So here it is, no frills, just easy to follow steps from the start.

How to Start a Community Garden at a School at no cost
(or, at least, how we did)


First, we needed approval. I sit on the school council and first brought the idea to them to see if it was even possible. Sitting on council helped by showing an investment beyond the idea and in our school community.

From there we had to get approval from the school board- a process that took nearly 8 months (start early!). The school board was reluctant to give approval, not because they didn't want to see a garden in the space, but because if anything happened to the garden it would become their responsibility (and cost) to step in and fix it. Eventually, someone with the board came and spoke with us and gave us the OK.

During the wait, I compiled as much information as I could about what the garden would look like, who would be responsible for it year over year and the potential impact it could have on our school community. I built a plan I felt removed any potential resistance, barrier or cost. In short, I tried to construct a plan it would be impossible to say no to.

What I didn't anticipate was what I would learn along the way about the school. I learned that a large number of students come to school without adequate nutrition- many with no food at all. I learned that the amount of vandalism at the school is astronomical. We are a through-way between a junior high and highschool as well as being a very popular community space. Despite all efforts to deter vandalism we had 25 windows broken over the course of about 3 months.

Being an active participant in these conversations and asking questions taught me some very important things about our school, and helped to shape our project is some critical ways.


The Crestview Community Garden is essentially a hybrid project: a community garden combined with a school program. 

For a downloadable version of our garden plan 
may it serve you and your garden well!


It's important to identify what you're trying to do with the garden and have guiding principles that keep the project moving towards beneficial outcomes. Having goals outlined can also be the start of an important conversation around what will work, and what's realistic for your community. Our goals shift as more people get involved and we grow together, but this is what we outlined initially:

The goals of our garden:·         
  • Show kids where food comes from, and develop a stronger relationship with food.
  • Reduce amount of processed and unhealthy foods in school lunches
  • Cultivate an interest in farming/growing things
  • Encourage entrepreneurship from a young age. 
  • Foster ownership of our health.
  • Create greater access to healthy food
  • Encourage stewardship for our environment, and community spaces
  • Reduce carbon footprint of food by growing some of it ourselves!
  • Reduce vandalism
  • Connect with other community garden initiatives
  • Overall connect the garden with broader education, nutrition, and environmental themes
  • Create more fundraising potential    


We spent a lot of time looking at the space. Considering the vandalism (which occurs at the back of the school, out of sight) we decided to put the garden at the front of our school where there's a lot of traffic and neighbours to watch over it.
  • We played with different layouts for the area it would go.
  • We talked with the school about potential water sources

community garden plan

  • 5 square 10’ X 10’ beds with wooden frames
  • evenly spaced with mulch framing all beds
  • 3 student beds: Front garden beds facing street
  • 2 community beds (quartered, for a total of 8 plots)


Sourcing what you need to build the garden is a major part of the process. My personal goal for the garden was for it cost absolutely 0 dollars to our school. I wanted to show that it was possible to start a garden- from scratch- for nothing. That way, any school, no matter their resources, would feel empowered to try. This is what our resources looked like in theory:

  • soil-plants/seeds
  • rototiller
  • tools
  • rainbarrels
  • wood to enclose raised beds
  • mulch
  • chicken wire 
  • (potentially) bamboo and jute for teepee (potentially)
  • Soil and mulch are free from the Region of Waterloo, and will be transported by Jane Barkley & Darrick Hahn. Currently have stock of seeds and further seed will be sought as sponsorship via OSC seeds
  • All other materials are being sought via sponsorship/community partnership

And this is what it looked like in reality:
  • seedlings donated by local grower with surplus (found through Kijiji)
  • 'tomatonaut' tomato seeds from space! Through school program
  • seed potatoes donated by family
  • general tools inherited
  • tilling tools loaned by local growers Two Crow Growery (also donated mulch)
  • wood for raised beds sourced free from Kijiji
  • compost free from the region

In our first year, because all seedlings were donated we didn't have to do much planning about what we were going to plant. We just had to coordinate where we planted and then work with the school to get kids out planting it (but you can read our full garden plan to see how we were going to tackle what to plant).

community garden planting

As another little point of interest, we intentionally constructed the garden right when the kids were getting out of school so they would walk right by and be able to see what we were doing, get intrigued/excited and ask questions.

It's pretty important to be real about the potential cost and consider how those costs will be dealt with ongoing. We knew our plan to keep it free would work in the first year, but anticipated having to source funding if we wanted to grow the project in the future. This is how we tackled funding in our initial plan:

  • All costs of the garden must be covered via sponsorship/partnership, community grants, donations, and revenue.
  • Permission to submit applications for grants from Libro, Foodland and any other relevant fund is being sought from council.
  • Other fund development to be coordinated with the Garden Club

Potential revenue sources:
Garden plots (8 spaces X $20/year = $160.00/year)

Now we're looking into crowdfunding and products we can sell.

From the beginning we wanted to consider who in the community might want to support our garden. Not all of these relationships came to fruition:

Crestview students
The Crestview Garden Club << this means working closely with the school!
Crestview School Council
Stanley Park area residents

The Local Food Fund

Pat Rittinger (green program KCI)
Region of Waterloo
Fresh Endeavours
Foodlink Waterloo Region
Nutrition 4 Learning
KW Urban Harvester (KWUH)

but we've established other completely unanticipated relationships and support.

To truly understand the impact of our garden, we want to track changes we see in the school environment. For instance, a great deal of time has been spent at our school looking at what we, as a school community, are eating. Having an overview of the typical school lunch, we can track any trend towards healthier lunches connected to our nutrition efforts and the growth of the garden.

Looking at our goals as important metrics of success, we're working towards showing the impact a community garden can have in a school.

Green Program at KCI
Oliver’s Garden
Gardens for good
Hope Blooms

I'm a bit of a geek for research, so I come by this pretty naturally. I wanted to see different gardens in schools and if there was data that actually showed what happens when you put a garden in a school community. Here's a bit of what I found:

“North Carolina researchers followed 95 school-aged children who participated in weekly gardening sessions for two years. The pilot study found that kids started eating more fruits and vegetables after they began gardening. A few of the kids who were overweight improved their BMI by the end of the study.” (School gardens plant seeds for healthy eating. Students learn more than horticulture when they get their hands dirty.- By Lee Marshall, CBC News Posted: May 17, 2013)

There is mounting evidence that gardens in schools improve eating habits and overall health, reduce obesity and vandalism, and create a strong focus on the environment.

We strongly believe it can also:
-significantly increase community investment in the space.
-help to grow some of tomorrow’s farmers
-teach entrepreneurship

So there you have it! PHEW. I can't say enough about what gardens do. They educate, they bring people together, they nourish us in absolutely every way.

If you want to talk community gardens TWEET ME @janieeden

Happy Gardening!