The following figure summarizes the main policy and strategic elements that need to be taken into consideration in the design and implementation of a school garden programme. These are based on the lessons learnt from past worldwide experience in school gardening.
The possibility for establishing school garden programmes will depend on the existence of the necessary political commitment and consequent national policies to support school gardens in the country and enable the development and implementation of “garden activities” in schools. Previous attempts to establish school garden programmes often failed to give adequate attention to the importance of the institutional framework. Institutionalization of school gardens is the key to the sustainability of these programmes. Sustainability implies independence from long-term external inputs and participation of all stakeholders (teachers, pupils, parents, school administrations, funding agencies, NGOs and ministries of agriculture, education, health, etc.).
It is important to ensure that school garden programmes are developed as part of the national effort to improve education quality and expand access to education for children in general and rural children in particular. This implies a multiplicity of factors (such as the expansion of the school network in rural areas, rehabilitation of school infrastructure, training of teaching and administrative staff, availability of learning materials, relevance of curricula, incentive for staff posted in rural areas, etc.). School gardens would ideally need to be planned as part of the National Plan of the UNESCO-led Education for All initiative as related components are operationalized and implemented. Governments should have a vision on how school garden initiatives can fit into the country's overall educational goals. This should be complemented by plans for financial, physical and pedagogical sustainability.
There is no single model of a school garden programme that fits every situation. School garden programmes must be well adapted to local customs and needs and to the specific socio-economic, climatic and environmental situation of the country or region concerned. This is particularly important in countries in which there is a stigma attached to manual labour. The design of the programme should involve both Ministries of Education, Agriculture and Environment, at central and decentralized levels, the communities, NGOs and community based organizations (CBOs) with experience in the field, parent- teacher associations and the students themselves.
Emphasize the “educational” role of school gardens
School gardens can contribute to increasing the relevance and quality of education, improving the children's and their parents' knowledge of food production techniques and nutrition, and stimulate the development of home gardens. These achievements would together lead to an improvement in the nutritional status of the children and their families and thereby contribute to improving food security and human capital. The potential role of school gardens in improving children's practical agricultural and nutritional knowledge and “life skills” is particularly valuable in the context of child-headed households as a consequence of the HIV/AIDS epidemic.
School gardens offer a great opportunity for improving the quality of education and for learning basic life skills. Gardens can serve as a “laboratory” for the teaching of modern farming skills and nutrition, but they can also be used for practical work related to biology, environmental studies, mathematics as well as reading, writing and arts. Ensuring that school gardens achieve a significant educational impact, however, may require adjustments in the national school curriculum, the production of training materials, teacher training and the provision of funds to meet physical and human resources costs for such activity.
School garden activities can include nutrition education, food preservation techniques, integrated pest management (IPM), integrated soil fertility management, sustainable natural resource management, recycling and composting, and environmental awareness raising, especially in urban areas. This can be done by building an interdisciplinary curriculum whereby core subjects (such as mathematics, social science, biology, etc.) can be linked to practical activities, such as gardening, establishing a fruit and vegetable stand where produce is sold, small business planning, food preparation and preservation, etc. Accordingly, creating an entry point in the curriculum and developing appropriate lesson plans that link theory and practical action should be a prerequisite for the successful implementation of school-based and community gardening and nutrition education programmes.
The potential for food production per se in school gardens has been overemphasized in the past. The school garden will normally supply requirements only for a limited number of months or even weeks every season. The effect on increased vegetable and fruit production and on diversification of production is considered to be more indirect. Some of the school children who have participated in school gardening activities will also be interested in helping their parents and families in establishing home gardens. In this way, the multiplier effect on production within the community is likely to be more important, in terms of production, than the school garden itself.
Ensure access to water and adequate technical support
A shortage of water is reported to be a major constraint for the development of school gardens, particularly in semi-arid areas. Except where there is reliable rainfall, the development of simple irrigation systems (water points, roof catchments, etc.) for school gardens needs to be considered. Apart from increasing the reliability of harvests, irrigation enables crops to be planted at suitable times so that they come into production during school terms. In many countries with free roaming animals, the protection of the garden with fences is also indispensable. Where land availability is a problem, particularly in urban areas, there may be good opportunities for container-based cultivation and for hydroponics.
The availability of technical skills to support school gardens needs to be considered. The charging of (usually over-burdened) school teachers with extra training and supervisory responsibilities needs to be carefully assessed against other possibilities involving the community and NGOs. Public-private partnerships, including sponsorship by firms, need to be explored. One option for engaging NGOs would be to link school gardens with NGO-driven community gardens. This is useful because often expertise exists among the members of the community gardens in managing gardens efficiently and there is capacity to transfer knowledge to others. At the same time it would reduce the workload of teachers and the need to train teachers in gardening.
Many such examples exist. Women's clubs or associations running vegetable gardens can assist teachers and provide practical training courses for students. They might share in the profit of the garden produce and/or the output in general. Farmer field schools within the village may also provide a good source of the necessary technical assistance. The use of volunteer services may also be a valuable source of agricultural skills, at least in the early development of school gardens.
It is essential that the knowledge and skills imparted to the school children be technically correct and sustainable to facilitate replication in the homestead. Local access to good quality seed or seedlings together with fertilizers and 'safe' pesticides appropriately packaged is essential to enable the technology demonstrated in the school garden to be transferred to the homestead. These inputs could be provided through the private sector or through a community based organization whose members would also require some initial training either through the Agricultural Extension Service or through a Volunteer Programme.
Link school gardens with school feeding programmes
School feeding is a powerful tool to alleviate short-term hunger and enhance children's learning capacities. School feeding also provides an incentive for parents to send or keep children at school, particularly girls. School gardens, if planned and implemented with the support of parents and the community, can complement school feeding programmes and enhance their long-term impact in terms of children's health/nutritional status and learning achievements.
The promotion of micronutrient-rich vegetables, including indigenous varieties, fruits and other foods (e.g. small livestock) in school, home and community gardens will diversify the local food base, generate income and add nutritional value to children's school meals, thus contributing to their nutritional status. As noted above, however, it is generally not possible for a school garden to generate much of the staple food required for a school feeding programme.
Maximize participation of pupils, parents and community in planning and implementation
Experience has shown that school gardening and nutrition education have a greater impact and can be sustained longer if they are part of a programme involving the whole school and linked to activities which engage parents and the community. Establishment of school gardens without the involvement of parents can create tensions within communities. Parents want their children to learn to read and write, and “ruralization” of the school curriculum is often rejected. It is essential to promote school gardens in the right context, i.e. as an applied activity with the potential for providing pupils with “life skills” and also increasing their environmental awareness, especially in relation to the conservation of natural resources (soil and water). Assisting in the creation of PTAs, where these do not exist, or supporting already established PTAs, is a constructive way to involve parents as partners in school-based gardening activities. Other good avenues for parents' effective involvement are through periodic visits to the school garden and through garden-related children's homework.
One comparative advantage of school-linked gardening is the active role that school children can learn to play in the provision of food for themselves, and in involving their parents in the learning process as opposed to being passive food recipients only. Where pupils have not been involved in the planning and management of projects and where they do not share directly in either the produce or the profits of the project, they have tended to reject the work, resulting in project failure. Children feel extremely proud and happy when the produce of their effort in the school garden is utilized for their lunches. Gardening also provides for group work experience, enjoyment in the outcome of the work done and of the acquired knowledge of agriculture and nutrition.
Misuse of school gardens and exploitation of pupils has unfortunately been a relatively common phenomenon in the past. In the reality of most rural schools, economic concerns often take precedence over teaching objectives, as poorly paid and unmotivated teachers are tempted to use the proceeds of the school farm as an additional income for themselves. This situation, coupled with an authoritarian school climate where pupils have no participation in the management of their produce, all too easily generates a teacher-pupil relationship of mutual mistrust and resentment, where pupils feel exploited as cheap labour for the teachers' benefit. This can be partially avoided by parent and community participation in the programme.
Familiarize school children with improved methods for sustainable food production
In secondary schools, in particular, the familiarization of students with up-to-date methods for improved sustainable production of food that are applicable to their homesteads or farms is a potentially powerful tool for improving the household food security.
Horticultural species, as opposed to other food crops, are of relatively high-value and have a tremendous yield potential. They can provide up to 50 kg of fresh produce per square meter per year, depending on the crops and technologies applied. Compared to other agricultural activities, horticulture makes efficient use of scarce land and water resources, thereby providing an excellent means for the application of efficient, environmentally sound and sustainable technologies.
Relatively sophisticated technology like hydroponics can also be promoted. Under hydroponics, plants can be grown closer together than in the field, thereby increasing yields, and multiple cropping can be practised. Hydroponics can conserve space, reduce pest incidence, and almost eliminate weed problems. If properly organized, surplus production can be marketed. For schools with restricted land access, hydroponics can offer good opportunities for growing a variety of vegetables, herbs and spices.
The establishment of protected cultivation in greenhouses is another option for modernizing school garden programmes in some countries. This offers exciting opportunities for teaching modern agricultural practices, including irrigation and integrated pest management, as well as water harvesting technologies.
Linkages with environmental education (e.g. through tree planting, organic production, integrated soil fertility and pest management, etc.) may also be established. Tree planting in schools can be promoted for various purposes, such as for shade, fruit production or even for harvesting of natural pesticides (e.g. neem). Composting and household waste management could be a useful area of learning which would also encourage community involvement.
The inclusion of training courses in bookkeeping and marketing into teaching related to school gardens, will increase business skills and contribute to an improved understanding of the economic value of small-scale agriculture.