Time to Improve School Grounds


A guest rant by Mary Gray

 Observe, if you will, your local public school.  Not the inside.  No, take a look at what’s going on outside — on the school grounds. [Photos no longer available.]

Pretty much nothing, right?  Oh, there are the large expanses of patchy grass serving no
purpose whatsoever — not functional, not aesthetic, just boring old swaths of blah.  And then there’s probably an empty courtyard, like this one:

A place that could be put to good use for the students and faculty but that just languishes empty and lifeless throughout the seasons.

It shouldn’t be this way. Picture if you will a school where the potential of the GROUNDS
is fully realized. 

A place where student clubs and vocational classes design, plant, and maintain beautiful school landscapes that include flowering trees, shrubs, and perennials.  And in doing so, they learn about design, botany, teamwork, and sweat. 

Where a portion of the playing fields are given over to natural playscapes, filled with an array of plant life, where kids could play tag among the trees or observe a butterfly in the act of pollination.  And minds as well as bodies are exercised.

Where science teachers help their students design and build a rain garden, or a planted swale. And everyday, students see how something they built has made their environment healthier and more beautiful.

Where English teachers lead students out of their cinder-block classrooms and into the open-air to enjoy reading Walden or Leaves of Grass the way the authors intended. 

Where kids research and plant natives and then inventory the
visiting insects and birds. 

Where seeds are planted and harvests reaped, both literally
and figuratively. 

So am I just a crazy dreamer or are most schools wasting what could be an incredible inspiration and resource for learning?  School grounds offer an array of educational opportunities for creative teachers, administrators, and parents, and it’s the kind of learning which would exercise not only the mind, but the body, the imagination, the senses.

So what are we waiting for?


  1. Spot on Mary and so applicable to many schoolgrounds here in the UK. There are notable exceptions and the RHS and various other gardening organisations are campaigning vigourously to get schools signed up to various gardening opportunities.

    I run a regular meme over at my blog called Out on the Streets which looks at various aspects of public planting and gets people to post about what’s happening in their neighbourhood. I’ve put a link to this post on there, I hope you don’t mind.

  2. Sad isn’t it? Probably due to budgets, if they have to ax teachers, a poor little plant really has no chance. But the cool thing, businesses love to get their names out, creative funding from local business grants could scare up the money needed. It’s all so doable. When I lived in Japan, I loved seeing the school gardens around the elementary schools, overseen by a custodian, and cared for daily by the students in their “15 minutes cleaning”. I like your vision, there’s so much that could be done with that much blank slate.

  3. I was just commenting to the spouse on our evening walk how amazing it was that the plantings at the local high school were not vandelized, like they would have been in our day. Nothing too spetacular, but shrubs, some perrenials and annuals. Lovely large old trees. The middle school is even better, they have a central courtyard planted to the hilt as kids’ projects with a fish pond. The kids are responsible for plantings each year. Grade school teachers take their classes to the park to plant annuals – a start. Now if they could just get a veggie garden going.

  4. The Catholic high school I attended many, many moons ago had a lovely garden area with large shade trees behind the school. I still remember discussing James Joyce under the trees on a gorgeous spring day. I’m pretty sure that if that discussion had taken place indoors it would have been forgotten long ago.

    Our local schools here have been quite good about adding garden areas, including prairie areas and a green roof, but there’s always room for more!

  5. So true. I look at landscapes all around and see desolation. Too many gardens are all about the green “maintenance free” shrub of the month at Home Depot, and not about beauty, variety, harvest. This is the case with most street side plantings, homes, apartment complexes, commercial buildings. Maybe all of these dull plantings are what have killed interest among the younger generation in gardening??

  6. I have attended worse schools than you picture here, so I feel fortunate that the children in our town go to an elementary school set in an old pasture edged with woodland where they study. There is a vegetable garden and a ‘meadow’ in the schoolbus circle/turnaround. I’ll have to post about this tomorrow.

  7. What about HVAC SAVINGS with trees giving sun/shade as needed thru the seasons & evergreen trees providing wind breaks during winter?


    Gardening/landscaping thru the door of MONEY SAVINGS will prompt change. NOT reading poetry outside under a tree.

    Football teams regularly have booster clubs of parents raising money & performing chores at the schools.

    Why don’t parents form booster clubs for school grounds?

    Schools have been my pro bono landscape design for decades. And I don’t have children.

    Garden & Be Well, XO Tara

  8. I like what you say about exercising minds as well as bodies. The elementary school I attended had a stand of Russian olive trees, and we did everything from play house to slay dragons in them. Such great fuel for the imagination! Even if planting projects aren’t actively tied to curriculum, they’re still a venue where minds can stretch and grow.

  9. The solution is other type of ground covers.

    That would eliminate the use of: lawnmowers, blowers, and trimmers. The noise, air, soil pollution.

    But I am aware that, the simple solution, demands some imagination. What would the probably illegal immigrants
    doing the maintenance
    do instead? Or what would the ground keepers from each city/town/county
    not far from the latter in USA, in terms of education/skills do?

    The solutions are available, however, less work less employees…No one is ready for that…

  10. The resorts on Hilton Head Island seasonally change out their plantings and often wonderful and healthy plants,shrubs and trees are simply discarded. A retired teacher/Master Gardener has taken up the cause and made a deal with many of the landscape companies. They call him when they have material and he collects it and enlists the students and fellow MG’s to plant. The students get to participate and learn about basic principles like soil prep and mulching besides doing much of the heavy work. What was once a bare building like the one pictured above is now graced with lovely flowering trees and shrubs, perennials and some really cool tropicals which thrive there. Way to go George!

  11. I’ve begun & deleted my answer to this post several times now. Hopefully my thoughts are in order now.

    What are we waiting for ?

    1) Budgets. Most schools can barely supply the basics for their classrooms, never mind build a school garden/outdoor learning experience. They’ve cut music & art, sometimes even PE. It would be nearly impossible to sell the concept of what most would see as “landscaping” (even if it is veggies) to the school board or parents. It’s money that would have to come from somewhere else.

    2) Donations. Sure you could ask local businesses to donate. But even in good economic times, it takes a boatload of sponsors to build & fill the raised beds and outdoor education facilities. And these are far from good economic times.

    3) Vision. Not only do the learning gardens have to be designed & constructed properly, but they must first be researched to make sure things will be done correctly. Eventually they must be maintained correctly as well. So you’ll need a continuous stream of parents & teachers at each school to keep up the work, to keep the mission on course. And then there’s making sure the plantings are incorporated into the curriculum. It’s one thing to enjoy reading Leaves of Grass in a outdoor setting. But the administrators have more pressing things on their plates than providing outdoor seating. They need to see measurable classroom results for the $$ they spend, because they in turn have to account for it to their superiors.

    Please don’t take this as me saying I’m against any of this in school yards. In fact, I’m garden coordinator for my kids’ school & I have worked hard to put in a 800 sf veggie garden, a long parking lot strip of natives, and a child-friendly flower garden. Most of the work was my own, the materials were either donated (from a few parents), culled from my own garden & seed collections, bought with our meager budget ($500, and that’s including the cash donations), or bought by me outright. I’ve pointed the teachers to websites & books that can help them build lessons around the gardens, or build the gardens into their lessons. But I’m not trained in education & thus can’t build that curriculum for them.

    I think most administrators can see the benefits of having a garden where the students can watch bees & butterflies & aphids & mantids at work, observe plant structure or worm activity firsthand, see the power of a seedling pushing up the earth, or learn about traditional crops & their uses. But much will have to change in education funding first to get to where outdoor education can be the norm at most schools.

  12. Things are probabaly very different in my area, which is agricultural; there are a lot of on-site garden projects and horticultural and ag classes at the high school (we even have cows and goats there); we also have a nature trail along the creek that flows nearby, that the biology students study, maintain and monitor. But our landscaping near the buildings could really be improved. Knowing our school board though, I’m willing to bet safety concerns would pop up, meaning no bushes or trees where clandestine activities could take place.

  13. There are a number of school prairie and general wildflower plantings around town, along with the more usual flower and vegetables at some schools.

    Some have done well; at least one succumbed to over-zealous school maintenance insisting the mowing was the only proper technique for a school yard… I planed a number of prairie plants in big, raised, brick planters 15 years ago, and most are still there.

    But it does depend on money, and time, and school teachers or others willing to get things started…

    And the plants don’t always cooperate…much of the prairie blooms in Summer with few around to see; Spring wildflowers work well if one has a few trees, but many are relatively rare and somewhat expensive if one can’t get donations. Vegetable gardens have a problem similar to prairies…plus watering!

    It’s still a very good idea:)

  14. First, hell yeah to this post.
    Second, I spent six summers working for the grounds crew of a public school system. And the only thing that mattered was what had to be mowed and what had to be trimmed with a weed-eater. And it’s a shame for all the reasons you give…but for most places, the maintenance budgets and know-how would need a $timulus of some sort in order to partner…especially in the summers.

  15. Great post…but have to chime in here. As a PTA president I can tell you the biggest problem that comes with organizing a garden plot is committment. You have to have a “champion” who not only spearheads the creation of the garden. They also keep the enthusiasm going months and years down the road. Gardens must be tended! And that means not only standard gardening tasks, but continous fundraising to pay for improvements and repairs. A new garden is exciting and fun. You run into problems when the new wears off and fatigue sets in. My daughter’s elementary school has a lovely garden–and a small group of dedicated parents who keep it looking decent. But we have two arbors that need repairs. The water spigot is leaking and needs to be fixed. Etc., etc. I can barely get PTA dues to cover basic expenses. Where will the funds come from? There are only so many hours a day you can spend filling out donation requests and grant forms! (High five to Laura Bell who commented above. Your assesment was right on.)

  16. I don’t have children and no info on how my town did this but at some of the large elementary schools the playground and soccer/football field are all part of a town park – with all the things you’d expect at a city park; wooded hiking trails, ponds, grills, shelters, etc. Outside of school times and school use the town rents out the facilities and makes money for upkeep. I think its genius. The school gets a playground AND a wooded area with wild flowers and wildlife.

    They still have minimal plantings up around the school buildings. I believe one of the reasons shrubs and landscaping is kept to a minimum in high traffic areas is because of fire ants, yellow jackets and poison ivy. All of which are kinda out of control around here.

  17. I’m thinking that very same thing looking at the wide unused expanse of grass at our middle school! We’re lucky enough to have a beautiful courtyard garden, greenhouse and pond at our elementary school,though


    but it’s been such a struggle getting teachers to integrate these lessons into an already-bursting curriculum. We find we have the most interest in gardening at the end of the year, when all the tests are over. Of course then there is the problem of what to do over the summer when in zone 6a most of the harvest is ready, but no kids are around.

    So far it is a handful of PTA parents that keep the garden going. To really get the kids involved it has to come from teachers, and therefore the principals. I think we need a principal publicity campaign :)They need to realize that it isn’t just a showplace that makes the school look green and progressive, you need champion but also a whole team willing to get their hands dirty.

  18. For years now I have worked very hard at maintaining 3 courtyard gardens and an entrance garden around our local grade school. I have tried recruiting others, I have tried getting the teachers interested, I have tried getting kids to help, I have talked to the maintance crew….so now everyone avoids me as I contintue to maintain the gardens. Everyone likes them….but everyone is busy, busy, busy with sports, band, mandated testing, mandated ccourse work and on and on and on….but the gardens do look nice and often when I am there volunteering a child will stop and ask questions. They do notice. Once a child even got upset becasue he thought I was stealing the plants which I had actually bought (with my own money) and was planting.
    Thanks for letting me rant a bit.

  19. I very much agree, wasted opportunity. I do remember our school. We did have quite a bit of landscaping. Not because I was a budding gardener, but because we had art class outside and would draw from nature. We had to keep a sketch journal for the year, so many,many plants, trees and insects were my models. We had to sketch buildings as well. I even kept some drawings after all these years. That’s how important that experience was to me and my future as an artist and architect. In retrospect, as a gardener too.

  20. Very great idea but the reality is that gardens are a lot of work, time and money. I’m a parent who works full time and struggles to keep up my garden and the housework, appointments, grocery shopping, the kids homework and ect.. finding volunteer time is very difficult and my family is on a budget.

    Just another reminder to make you feel guilty of not being “super mom”.

  21. Let’s face facts, your school years are all about drinking, taking drugs and copping a feel off the “over developed” girl in class. Had anyone suggested gardening to me back then, I wold have told them where to stick it.

    The young person today goes to school to have fun, and we ask them to learn something too. That’s pushing it a bit, but to ask them to garden too? Come on, be real.

    Also, when I was at school, the nuances of “Leaves of Grass” were wasted on me. I spent all day reading National Geographic to see if it had any pictures of Amazonian tribeswomen with their tops off.

  22. Why is the vast expanse of grass unused?

    At my kids’ schools, that vast expanse of grass is where they go during recess, to run and play football or soccer or kickball without some teacher ordering them around or making them pick the most “fair” teams. It’s where the social stuff gets sorted out and the antsy kids get to blow off a little steam. It’s the most “real world” they get all day.

    And while plants might be nice, they’re going to get trampled when Josh “goes long” or Katie dives for the frisbee. Someone will trip or get stung and then recess is over early and the day is over.

    I know fields of grass aren’t the most environmentally friendly landscaping, but if there’s any place they are justified it’s at a school.

  23. FAB post. Totally agree but $ and maintenance stop it.

    Volunteer projects suggested for school gardens and plantings were put down since “no one here to harvest in the summer or maintain” — every solutions was met with another out down so progress waits until the educators are educated or retire and another person. I gave up!

  24. Admirable sentiments, but I agree with Jenny that kids need space to run around. I also think there are safety issues that school administrators might not want to admit to. They need to be able to see all the kids, there can’t be places for scary people to hide, emergency personnel need to be able to get in quickly.

  25. We had a tree like that at our high school. They used to spread manure under it to keep the kids from smoking out there.

    So, if you plant a nice space to sit at a school, will the administration just put a fence around it to make sure it doesn’t get used?

  26. Please rant on, but if you need reassurance that many schools are trying to do something, please check out my blog, “I’m a teacher, get me OUTSIDE here!” http://creativestarlearning.blogspot.com/

    There are some lovely, inspirational school grounds. Let’s celebrate the good, and encourage the bad and the ugly to make some changes. (For ideas on how to give your ugly fence a makeover, please have a look at my Facebook page http://www.facebook.com/album.php?aid=175113&id=78456423208

  27. My kids attended a grade school where a new addition to the school created an interior court yard space. The PTO and teachers got together, planned a beautiful space and the parents and kids did all the work. All the materials were donated by local businesses and groups like the Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts. We created a huge fish pond, a butterfly garden, reading circles with old tree stumps for seating, a patio area with picnic tables, and grasses, trees and flowering shrubs. It could be accessed by any wing of the school and was used by the science, art, reading and classroom teachers. After that we tackled the outside grounds and added more trees and shrubs. The kids and teachers love it.

  28. We are really fortunate, we’ve just moved to a town with a strong agricultural tradition, where the entire front lawn of the school was ripped up last year and crops (some of which will be used for school lunches) were planted instead. I don’t know all the details, but it was in partnership with a local organic farm that needed more space so I’m guessing that the labor and plants all came from them. The kids were involved in some of the planting in the spring. When you drive past the school (which is a new building designed to look like an old barn) it looks amazing. I should get over there to take some pictures and post…

  29. The elementary school my kids attended in Olympia, WA has a vegetable & fruit garden, a created wetland, and a water-wise garden emphasizing native plants. The food garden is well integrated into the curriculum, and the other two gardens are used to varying degrees by the classes. The water-wise garden is a favorite play space. We are extremely lucky. All of these came about because of substantial parent involvement and a supportive and interested staff.

    The high school my oldest son attends is about to embark on a farming program with a local non-profit (Garden Raised Bounty) which is aiming to get their program going at this one school first and then share the model with other schools. I also helped organize, design and install a learning landscape focusing on storm water issues and habitat at our Middle School a few years ago, and it still looks great.

    It is hard to get things going in this time of tight school and government, and non-profit budgets, but where there is interest, communities can make it happen!

  30. The secondary school both my daughters attended and where I am a Governor has beautiful grounds and vegetable as well as large grassy areas for ball games or whatever during breaks.

    I did a guest post about the students gardening projects which is linked from my blog (www.nuttygnome.blogspot.com)under the title ‘schools gardening project part 2’ – which is also about one of our partner primary school’s own gardening projects.

    I’m very proud of what our school has achieved in the school grounds, so don’t despair that all school grounds have to be grassy wastelands because that’s just not the case!

  31. In my town, the local environmental group is working with the biggest primary school to establish a community orchard on a strip of their unused ground. We plan to work with other local schools to do similar things, and they are keen. It’s true that not everyone can find the time – but if you can get together with others who are interested, you can share out the work and also encourage others. Plus it’s enjoyable!


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