Category Archives: Schools

School Gardens 101

I found this video which might be beneficial for new school gardens. Enjoy!

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Uthoff Valley Elementary

Uthoff Valley Elementary is the latest and nicest school garden I helped with this year. Here are a couple of notes about the garden.

  • The wood is treated so it should last longer than the wood we replaced.
  • The whole area is covered with mulch to keep down the weeds.
  • They added compost to the garden area and will add mulch after planting.
  • They asked about fertilizer and I suggested that if the plants looked poorly then they could add some Milorganite.
  • They are using a hose timer and soaker hose so that the entire area will be watered automatically over the summer.
  • The wood is placed on top of the soil. I suggested adding compost every year to build up the soil level.
  • The entire area had to be worked initially to remove the aggressive plants and weeds in the garden.

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School Plants

Here is a list of butterfly plants I am adding to some of my school gardens.

Milkweed for Monarchs

  • Swamp milkweed – Ascelpias incarnata – note – it’s probably best to plant seeds in the fall. Mark their location. Prefers wet location
  • Butterfly Weed – Asclepias tuberosa – plant seeds in place in the fall. Mark their location. Prefers dry location
  • Tropical milkweed – this will bloom all summer long. Prefers sunshine

Host Plants

  • Bronze Fennel – perennial for Black Swallowtail (BST)
  • Golden Alexander – perennial for Black Swallowtail (BST) – looks great in May.
  • Dill/Parsley – perennial for Black Swallowtail (BST)
  • Kale – host for Cabbage White
  • Pussytoes – host for Painted Ladies


  • Holly – french
  • Purple Globe amaranth – covers a large area.
  • Lantana – large type to cover a big area – needs lots of sun.
  • Verbena bonareinsis – blooms all summer and may reseed. Tall.
  • Zinnia angustifolia – you can also just plant the seeds as they germinate in four days.
  • Zinnia seeds – tall plant early July. Forecast from Burpee is mildew free.


  • Allium – large – blooms in May
  • Allium millenium – blooms June, July,
  • Aster – aromatic – fall bloomer.
  • Bee Balm
  • Black Eyed Susan – Rudbeckia fulgida fulgida….this is the one I like.
  • Bronze Fennel
  • Calamint – this is not invasive and blooms most of the summer. Montrose White is a great bloomer.
  • Coreopsis lanceolata and/or Plains.
  • Downy Skullcap (Scutellaria incana)
  • Echinacea purpurea
  • Gaillardia – l
  • Robins plantain – Erigeron – blooms early and spreads.
  • Lavender – needs sun and drainage.
  • Liatris – rough ….for later blooms
  • Maltese Cross
  • Nepeta – Walkers Low – cut back in mid-summer
  • Packera obovata – Roundleaf Groundsel – early blooms
  • Penstemon
  • Phlox paniculata – Garden Phlox
  • Phlox divaricata – Wild Sweet William – low grower – blooms in spring.
  • Veronica – blooms twice if cut back.
  • Salvia – purple – plains – cut back to get second bloom.
  • Red Salvia – reseeds inself
  • Rudbeckia – blooms for an extended period.
  • Sedum – blooms in the fall, but may get large and floppy
  • Shasta Daisy – Becky
  • Veronica
  • Wild Sweet William – early bloomer

Also Bring:

  • Soil to fill-in.
  • Fertilizer – organic – spread on after planting.
  • Spades for kids.
  • Gloves
  • Stand tools in cart


  1. Make sure the water is on.
  2. Since most schools are closed in the summer, most of the plantings are mainly for spring and fall blooms.
  3. Encourage the sponsor to find a summer helper to weed and water during the summer.
  4. Use small containers so kids only have to dig small holes.

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Playgrounds and Gardens

Yes – this is a garden.

If anyone suggested putting in a garden in a baseball field, people would think you were nuts. We just had a similar situation where 1700 plants were put in a playground last year and a year later they are almost all dead and gone.

Kids running around in a limited area, playing soccer, tag, etc. are going to run right through the gardens and trample all the plants. That’s what happened in this one school garden. Do the math on buying 1700 plants and the effort involved in planting and you realize how much was wasted on that one garden.

One solution in a limited playground area is to put out a few large pots which are out of the way and can stand up to soccer balls. Large pots do need more frequent watering than plants in the soil.

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Lights for Schools

Now is the time when many schools start to plant seeds indoors. A recent school I am helping has no indoor lights for their garden trays and so we are trying to get the PTO to fund a light system.

Here are the high cost options.

Gardeners Supply –

They do give a discount for schools, so make sure your school has an account with them.

$849.00 – LED SunLite® High Intensity 3-Tier Garden
This is a nice system with three levels, each four foot long. They have 3 LED bulbs per shelf.

They also have a 2 light LED system for $729.00 or a 2 light T5 Fluorescent lights for $599.00

I am looking for other options to post, so if you have a system suitable for schools, please let me know.

Cheapest Options

One cheap option I use is a T8 fluorescent light fixture. It costs around $53 plus the cost of the bulbs.
My favorite uses four T8 bulbs and puts out lots of light.
Lithonia Lighting 1284GRD RE Lighting Fixture, 32W, 120V, Silver (w/Wire Guard)

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Raised Beds

If you are looking to put in a raised bed garden, here is a nice video. Schools in particular may prefer the three foot width to make it easier for kids to garden in the bed.

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Schools 4 x 8 Foot Butterfly Garden

I have a school which has a 4′ x 8′ area and the teacher wanted some guidelines.

Soil – I prefer the SLC Raised Bed Mix. It’s more expensive, but makes it very easy to plant. You should only need one cubic yard. Get a parent with a pickup truck to get the mix. I have had poorer results with other soil mixes.

Some YouYube videos just use compost to plant in. The problem I have with the compost I buy is that it is still very hot and may burn seeds and new plants. It certainly burned and killed my grass where I had it dumped one year.

You can buy cheaper soil mix, but in a couple of years this soil compacts down and it’s very hard for the young kids to dig in when planting.

Mulch – The mulch I like is called Black Forest Mulch. It’s a combination of fine mulch and compost.
You can buy it at Lowes or at St. Louis Compost.

I prefer to use compost as a mulch.

Construction – Gateway Greening has a good PDF on the materials and construction of the bed. They use a treated wood which they believe is safe. You may want to use cedar if your are going to raise vegetables and want an extra layer of security. Here is another good article by the U. of Missouri about raised beds and their materials.

Edging – If you  can afford it, it’s nice to edge the bed with pavers. It not only makes the garden look more professional, but keeps the grass away from the garden. The kids will be walking around the garden a lot and it will prevent the area from getting muddy. Here’s a garden done by one Boy Scout with pavers.

Fertilizer – The first year you might not need fertilizer, but you can add some later in the year if plants look like they might need some help. I usually add two inches of compost every year to feed the soil.

Water – It’s imperative that you have a source of water nearby. You may need a special key to turn the water on. You can buy those at a hardware store.  Talk to the maintenance people for help. I also like to leave a short hose by the garden so that it’s easy to water. You will find that during the summer that the raised bed will need more water.

Maintenance – Schedule parents/families/scouts to maintain and water the garden during the summer. Once a week should be fine. Weeding and watering are the main chores.

Size – while 4′ x 8′ is a standard, it might be a bit big for kids. You may want to try 3′ x 8′.

Other Tips

  • Make sure the kids can walk all the way around the garden. They will need to be able to plant and pull weeds without getting in the garden.
  • You want most of your plants to be blooming in September. This is when the kids will be coming back to school and the Monarchs will be migrating.
  • Find a location with the most sunshine possible.
  • Make sure the small plants are in the front where they will get the most sun. You don’t want the tall plants to shadow the smaller plants.

Here is a general idea of what I might plant.
I’ve divided it into three areas – Tall – Medium and Small.


Dill, Fennel, Milkweed, Agastache, Blazing Star, Zinnia-tall, Verbena bonareinsis


Shasta Daisy, Salvia, Maltese Cross, Echinacea, Lantana, Coreopsis lanceolata, Zizia,


Parsley, Allium, Pussy Toes, Coreopis (small), Zinnia -Profusion

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Planting in Clay Soil with a Bulb Planter

bulb-planter-200This week I brought in lots of plants for a school garden, which had not been prepared in any way. Ideally, the soil would have been amended or they would have added 6 to 9 inches of top soil and compost. In this case we were dealing with soil that had landscape fabric on top – probably for years.

After taking the landscape fabric off, the soil turned out to be wet clay which would have been very tough to dig in and impossible to break up.

I had brought my heavy duty bulb planter which made short work of creating nice size holes to put in the plants. This  particular model was made by Hound Dog and is an older model. Its opening tapers from 2 3/8″ to 3 1/4″. You pull on the handle to open up the bottom and release the clay. There appears to be a new model being sold which has some bad reviews. I’d advise buying one from a local store so you can return it if you have trouble.

I added potting soil at the bottom of the hole, put in my plant and added more potting soil.

This technique works very well when you have wet clay soil. You can put in lots of plants with a minimum of time and effort.

airport-elementary-01-300This technique works great for schools which have young kids and terrible soil. Here’s what the end result looks like.



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Buying Soil for the Garden

I recently had a friend by a soil mix from  St. Louis Composting. It was supposed to be a mix of 50% top soil and 50% compost. She ended up getting big clumps of clay in the soil and I was disappointed in the mix. There response was this, “With the wet winter and now wet spring, it has been hard for us to pull soil out of our fields. This has led us to go to other sources of receiving the material.”  Their new source seems to be more clay than anything like topsoil.

I also went to Grants View library community gardens. They have just completed their raised beds and were also filled with those large boulder like clay clumps. Gateway Greening ordered the same Garden Mix which was supposed to be 50/50 said, “They have a huge facility, so there are always variables in my experience.”

The lesson learned is this.

Go to the source of your soil and check it out before you buy it. Look at it, feel it and check the quality of what they are going to send you.

After they dump the soil on your lot, it’s too late to do anything about it. Check out the soil or soil and compost combination ahead of time and make sure they get exactly what you want.

Note – St. Louis Composting also has a product called SLC Raised Bed Mix which might be better, but is more expensive.

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Butterfly Gardens in a Pot

I’ve got a school that doesn’t have room for a traditional in the ground garden, so we are going to plant in large pots. The question that comes to mind is, “What kind of soil should we put in the pots?

Here are two solutions from two experts.

  1. One expert, Jesse, suggests this for a mix to fill the pots.
    2/3 – potting mixI like ProMix – BX – it has micorrhizae
    1/3 compost – this provides a lot of the nutrients that the plants need. I like the Black Gold compost that you can buy at
    If you don’t need a large quantity they do sell it for $3.50/bag or 3 for $10.00.
    Jesse does not use Osmocote or any other fertilizer, but every year he might just add extra compost to the pots.
  2. Another expert from a Horticulture program suggests using ProMix BX. Don’t use any other amendments, but after you put in the plant, you sprinkle Osmocote on top. There are two types of Osmocote – I buy the one with the micro-nutrients. Another tip she had was to put in an upside down pot to help take up some of the space if you want to save money on potting mix.

Below are three pots I did for a school. They are fairly large pots and are filled with Miracle
Gro potting soil plus a Miracle Gro Compost. Each pot took about a dozen plants and then some of the kids planted marigold seeds around the outside. One pot with the stake was entirely different types of milkweed.  The other pots were combinations of host and nectar plants. I put in close to a whole tray of plants into each pot.

May 10, 2016 – I’m also testing out a pot at home to see how the various plants do.
Here’s a list of butterfly plants I have put into pots.
Alyssum, Bronze Fennel, Coreopsis, Echinacea, Pussy Toes, Salvia, Shasta Daisy, Tropical Milkweed, Verbena bonareinsis, Verbena trailing, Veronica.

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