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Dec 26

A Sneak Peek: Starting a School Garden Program – Developing a Collaborative Plan with Stakeholder Buy-in

Posted by GeriMiller on 26 Dec 2010. Filed under  Garden Care, How To Guides, School Gardens View Comments

This “glimpse” is an excerpt from the HGEL ebook “Starting and Maintaining a School Garden Program: A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints” which will be available for purchase from the HGEL store opening Spring of 2011. This “Toolbox” book will include standards-based lesson plans.

I’ve been a consultant to school districts and individual schools (, running a school garden program, designing native and edible gardens and lecturing to my fellow Master Gardeners about school gardens for years now. I have heard many happy stories about school garden start-ups but, unfortunately, I have come across many more about those that didn’t succeed or fizzled out after a couple of years. I have come to realize that the successful programs began with two elements in common: a collaborative beginning and strong stakeholder buy-in. Stakeholders are defined as “individuals or organizations who stand to gain or lose from the success or failure of a system” as in this case; teachers, administrators, staff, students, and parent groups.

Taking the time to build this strong foundation of stakeholder support WILL take time, no doubt, but it WILL make the difference in whether or not your program flourishes and survives difficult times like the present challenges of budget cuts, low volunteerism (parents going back to work) and increased pressure on teachers (increased class size). Many well-intentioned community members or parents who tried to “just do it” by “throwing seeds in the ground” found that without that strong foundation of collaboration and buy-in, their programs were the first to be abandoned when the focus of the school needed to concentrate on larger, more pressing issues like maintaining or reaching academic goals. Teachers and administrators MUST be confident that you can address three critical questions when proposing your garden program:

Many gardens start with the narrow focus of nutrition education. While that is a much needed and important aspect, it should not be the only focus if you wish your program to become a lasting and integral part of your school’s curriculum toolbox. Make the garden an invaluable teaching tool to help achieve academic goals in science, math, language arts and social studies and you are making your program virtually “recession proof”.

This depends on your school. Designing, implementing and managing a garden program is a large job. You and your stakeholders must decide on a program structure that best suits your school’s volunteer capacity, teacher interest, and financial situation. There are many ways schools run their programs and we’ll feature some of these different formats in later episodes.

Stakeholders want to know that you’re ready with a long term plan for sustaining your program. Nobody wants to support an idea that may not be there next year. Have a plan for who will run the garden during the summer months and in future years (especially important if you’re completely volunteer run without teacher involvement), a plan for fundraisers and potential grants to support the garden financially, and a plan to “grow” the program (set goals for growth that mirrors the goals of the school – i.e. incorporating a school-wide composting/recycling program, expanding curriculum to include environmental sciences, etc.)

I will go into more details on how to address these three questions in the next chapters.


“ Projects will succeed or fail primarily based on the actions of people who care enough to defend or oppose them. ”
As any skilled marketing professional will tell you, you must know your target audience’s NEEDS, FEARS, HOPES AND ASPIRATIONS before you attempt to “sell” them your product (yes “sell”). Knowing these details about your stakeholder group is IMPERATIVE in designing a program that will be embraced wholeheartedly by all!

Although the following link is to an article talking about software design, its principals of addressing the needs of stakeholders in order to succeed is exactly what must be applied when designing your garden program: In all my years of helping schools develop internal structure that facilitates over-all institutional success, the idea of bringing together all stakeholders around a central objective is THE most important element. Here’s an excerpt from this article that beautifully explains the importance of stakeholder analysis:

“One of the goals of stakeholder analysis is to anticipate reactions to the project, and build into one’s plans the actions that will help win support for the project. User experience projects have often had a difficult time winning support from management and development teams. This issue often arises later in the project cycle, by which point stakeholders already have had a chance to stake out their positions.

Our experience is that conducting stakeholder analysis early in the project gives us a chance to anticipate potential objections and take care of them upfront. Stakeholders, when shown the results of a project, are not surprised, and recognize their own input into the project. This personal investment makes them more likely to accept the results.”

Ok, now you know the “WHY” of stakeholder analysis….here are suggestions on the “HOW” of it:

1. You’ve been called to the Principal’s Office!
Meet with the Principal. Though you won’t have the fully articulated curriculum design, come prepared with an outline and program options that address Questions Two and Three (above). Leading with the question “What do you want to get out of this program?” is exactly how you start the dialogue. Make it clear that you intend to design the program with input from administration and staff to ensure that the program meets the academic needs of the school. Get the Principal’s guidance on how best to approach the teaching staff.

2. Go to the Head of the Class!
Meet with the teachers. How you do this depends on the recommendations of the Principal. You might be able to make a presentation at the weekly staff meeting and follow up by meeting with the grade level chairs individually. As you did with the Principal, after explaining the program broadly, leading with the question “What do you want to get out of this program?” is exactly how you start the dialogue. These meetings will be the first step toward designing your standards-based lessons.

3. Meet the Parents!
Meet with the parent leadership of all parent groups on campus (PTA, Booster, etc) to explain the preliminary plan, your support from the administration and teaching staff. Though you won’t have a definitive budget yet, be prepared to talk about ideas you have about fundraisers and potential grant sources to support the program. You may make presentations at the general meetings, speak at the volunteer recruitment meetings, etc.

These are the essential steps in getting started. Follow these steps and you’ll be well on your way to success!

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