Classroom gardens can offer new opportunities for students and can be utilized in ways that make them more affordable.
We’ve already discussed how classroom gardens are a solution to low resources and other benefits. Now we’re going to talk about the first steps toward building your own classroom garden.
This article will help you overcome common challenges of starting a classroom garden, as well as help you find the right materials you need to make it happen.
Overcoming the challenges of implementation
The most common concerns keeping educators from getting an indoor garden for their classrooms are:
US Specific Funding
Easily the most common frustration for educators hoping to install an indoor farm in their classroom is the issue of funding. Educators often struggle to get the financial resources needed for classroom projects.
Educators don’t have to face this problem alone. Numerous foundations, government projects, and federal departments offer resources to teachers in need of funding for projects like indoor farming.
1) Federal or state classroom/school initiatives
These grants are focused on improving nutrition, student health, and educational opportunities nation or state wide. While the alphabet soup of government departments can be intimidating, the paperwork is the most challenging part.
Many of these grants are rarely or never applied for, so even if the amount of funding or description of the project goes beyond the needs of your classroom farm, consider applying anyway.
2) Agricultural Initiatives
These grants focus on improving the state of agriculture, empowering local farmers, or improving crop research. While some of these grants might seem to be a bit of a reach for a classroom farm, oftentimes the funding can be reached with a little extra work.
For example, the Specialty Crop Grant focuses on improving the “competitiveness” of a massive list of crops. The grant asks that its awardees improve these crops, and experimenting with hydroponic viability and breeding is certainly a way to improve these crops.
Don’t shy away from some creative language – the worst response you can get from a potential donor is no.
3) Big Box or Commercial
One great classroom funding option educators don’t often know about are “Big-Box” store foundation grants. Some “Big-Box” stores are: Lowes, Home Depot, Shopko and Walmart.
These stores and others have foundations established which provide grants and other opportunities for people to better their communities – commonly through school programs. Hardware companies in particular make great partners for indoor garden builds.
The companies that provide these grants are looking for public-facing, compelling narratives to help them improve the public’s perception of them. Indoor gardens are both beneficial for the community and make for great press, so don’t hesitate to let these companies help fund your garden.
Space and facilities
How much space does a classroom garden require?
Depending on what sort of farm build (ZipGrow™ Towers, Farm Walls™, Education Rack etc.) you’ll be pursuing in your classroom, the space requirements will range from snug farms tucked in the corners of classrooms, to sprawling aquaponic gardens in your school.
For example, the Farm Wall™ is a vertical hydroponic garden that takes up about 4-16 square feet when set on the ground. The garden can also be hung on a wall in a classroom or hallway.
Alternatively, a more intensive aquaponic garden may require space for a fish tank and media beds or ZipGrow™ Towers. That type of garden would need more space; 80-100 square feet is typical.
Other schools have implemented classroom gardens designed to serve the whole school and outfitted full greenhouses anywhere from 200-2,000 square feet.
What does a grow space need?
Your grow space will also require water, power, ventilation, and light.
Water: For small gardens, a nearby sink will do. A hose makes labor much easier. For larger operations, a hose is necessary and drainage is recommended.
Power: Indoor gardens can function with basic power outlets to run the pump and lights. If you’re outfitting a greenhouse with supplemental lighting, talk to an electrician about the power needed to run the lights.
Ventilation: If you’re building a system more than a few hundred square feet, and especially if the space is tight, you’ll need extra ventilation. (If you’re building a greenhouse, consider having an expert size an HVAC system for you.)
Light: Light is the most underestimated factor of growing. Sometimes a south-facing window is enough light to grow, but crop lifecycles are slower and plants aren’t as healthy if they don’t have enough light. We highly recommend outfitting your classroom garden with lighting.
The team here at ZipGrow is happy to help with any estimates of the feasibility of your classroom hosting an indoor farm.
The real challenge for many educators is securing administrative approval from their superiors.
This issue is very much dependent on the unique circumstances surrounding your classroom. But here are few common stumbling blocks to look out for when approaching your boss for permission to start a classroom garden:
Be sure to provide a clear, actionable plan that specifies when and how you’ll be paying for the indoor garden. Walk through the major costs of your indoor farm and how they will be recouped through donations, grants, and sales. Have a plan before going to your administrator, so that you can tackle this issue head-on.
Keeping students out of harm’s way is a large concern for the administrators of schools. While most indoor farms only require some basic power, a little water, and decent ventilation, there are risks.
Young students will require supervision around the farm. Electricity and water can present electrical risks. Pesticides and fertilizers each have specific safety recommendations. Most of the safety requirements include simple measures such as wearing gloves and ventilating the space.
To plan safety measures, Google the MSDS sheet for the substance. Common substances used in hydroponics will included calcium nitrate, Chem-gro fertilizers, pH adjustors like pH Down, and pesticides such as Neem and Serenade.
This is an example of what an MSDS sheet looks like. (Click for the whole sheet.) MSDS sheets include the safety measures required for the substance as well as key information about contents and source.
Go to your boss with every safety risk anticipated and a careful plan to ensure the student’s safety.
Unfortunately, many school administrators will be hesitant to allow a project like an indoor farm to proceed because they wish to avoid the appearance of facilitating or favoring a particular teacher. Anticipating this issue can be a simple as creating a basic curriculum that can be shared within teaching groups, classrooms, or cadres of students.
Demonstrate that the farm isn’t just your pet project, but a resource that the entire school can utilize. Emphasize the utility of the farm and the opportunity it affords to all of the faculty in the school.
Labor is a major hang-up for many educators. A typical American classroom is empty three or four months out of the year. Addressing who will maintain and harvest the indoor farm during these months is an important issue when considering the feasibility of your classroom farm.
Remember that hydroponic gardens can be shut down and started back up fairly easily. Aquaponic gardens house fish that requires maintenance all year long. This is a big factor in deciding which technique to use! If you’re an educator and considering an aquaponic farm, you’ll need to plan for the responsibility of maintaining the farm during the academic off-season.
Consider enlisting parent and student volunteers to maintain the farm during periods where you’ll be unavailable to tend to your crops such as weekends and vacations. Any teacher considering volunteer labor should consider how they’ll train and incentivize these volunteers. Here’s a hint: Delicious vegetables and greens from your farm make a great way to compensate your diligent crew.
Indoor gardens can be both turnkey systems or DIY projects. Turnkey systems can be put together in an afternoon with basic tools. Hanging artifical lighting can require some carpentry skills and electric drill, but overall these kits are straight forward to set up.
Many educators prefer to build their own system and use the project as a learning experience. This can be an engaging way to teach math, critical thinking, and even business and finance skills.
Creating your indoor garden will take a little technical know-how. Check out our Youtube channel for tips and how-to’s on building. For the more complicated builds, we encourage you to contact the ZipGrow team for advice and expertise.
Another great resource for educators is parents and students who might have the tools and technique to get your indoor garden on the road. If you can enlist these valuable workers into your classroom farm team, assembling and maintaining your farm will be much easier. Leverage parent teacher conferences, school newsletters, and student directories to track down the parents that might be able to help with your indoor garden.
How you use your new indoor farm to deliver educational content to students is easily the most exciting and enjoyable part of the building process. You’ll want to have a variety of curriculum options available from the get-go to impress your school administrators and convince them of the need for the opportunity for indoor farming.
The main question when it comes to curriculum is whether to buy it or build your own.
Where to get supplies
Many classroom garden supplies like poly tubing, PVC, and tools can be found at a Lowe’s or Home Depot. You can buy the growing equipment on our online store.