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Engaging High School Students in School Garden Activities

With support from First Lady Michelle Obama, schools across the country are hearing the message that school gardens can be a terrific way to deliver instructional content in a hands-on way, as well as bring together a school community. We all know that children will jump at the opportunity to play in the dirt but how do you get teenagers excited about the garden? Here we feature three Healthy Schools Program High Schools that are figuring it out as they go!


As physical education teacher at Ballou High School, Benjamin Davis has a unique perspective on the importance of instilling healthy behaviors at a young age. “By the time kids come to high school they have established a permanent routine and they have much more progressive health issues. Obesity and diabetes have set in. The students have really fallen behind in cardiovascular health so they feel more pain when they start trying to move more.“

Davis, who moved from an elementary school to the high school last year, has now been a leader on two school wellness councils and is determined, despite the challenges, to shift the culture of the high school in a healthy way. Exposing students to healthier foods by working in a school garden is a lifelong skill and hobby that Davis hopes will change the way his students think about what they consume. In addition to starting a garden, they have a greenhouse that is used to enhance science and nutrition lessons, they hope to participate in the Chefs Move to School program, they have added a physical education elective course and they have started an employee wellness collaborative which is focused on offering intramural team sports and cooking classes for staff in area schools.

The school encourages students to stay after school to participate in various activities and they offer a healthy dinner for those who do. Students at Ballou are required to do community service so Davis has been working on a plan to incorporate the garden into this program. He wants students to grow seedlings and then deliver them and/or help plant them for other schools and organizations in the community.


It has been almost ten years since the staff at St. Paul High School started their community garden. They started with an area that was 1,000 square feet and later received more grant funds to expand into a 30,000 “outdoor learning center.” The purpose of the garden, according to teacher Kari Rise, is to “inspire people to be active in their community, teach about health/food/ecology and provide an urban natural space.” Over the years the garden has inspired a diverse array of projects. One group used the space to host a movement and performance piece about the Vietnam War. They started an “Art in the Garden,” program which brought together students of art, history and psychology with special education students. One year they placed a Raku kiln in the garden and students could experiment with creating this unique form of Japanese pottery, dating back to the 16th century, in a traditional, outdoor setting.

According to Rise, it is not difficult to convince the older students to help with the garden. “They love it! They beg to go out to the garden on beautiful days. Sure, there are always a few that say, ‘I don’t want to get dirty,’ but overall they want time to work, explore, play and chill in the garden. It inevitably brings up stories about their families and the gardens they grew up in.” Students help in the spring getting the soil prepared and doing some planting and they help with harvesting in the fall and “putting the garden to bed” for the winter. Then they rely on other groups to help in the summer.

A community partner, Farm in the City, has provided the school with a garden manager each summer. They have had different groups come to help maintain the garden over the summer months, from graduate students studying urban agriculture and a group of local organic chefs, to a group of deaf Hmong farmers that started a small farmer’s market. The space has been farmed by a PhD student researching hazelnuts and a local recovery group. Teachers have used the space to teach science, art, math, literature and staff and students have used the space to meet with each other, eat lunch or meditate. All produce and flowers grown are used for a CSA (community supported agriculture) program or given to local food banks.


At Laurel High School, the idea to start a school garden was one of many to raise awareness about healthy living. School nurse Muriel Crentsil and Spanish instructor Henrique Vissotto selected the site and set out recruiting others to help. The school’s custodial staff contributed by hauling mulch, topsoil and plants from local nurseries to the garden site. Then they recruited students from the Spanish Club to dig up the ground and plant the shrubs, herbs and vegetables. The environmental science students also pitched in to help plant and water. Students who help in the garden are eligible for community service hours and this has been enough of an incentive to keep students involved. Vissotto adds that, “The Spanish Club was excited about building something new in our school- something they can call their own and be proud of. And they hope to be able to eat the food that they cultivate!” Advice on Working with Older Students in the Garden: In 2010, the Alliance for a Healthier Generation teamed up with City Blossoms, a nonprofit organization based in Washington D.C. that works with schools and community groups to grow and maintain creative gardens for children, to create a toolkit for schools on how to plan a successful garden. City Blossoms’ founders Rebecca Lemos and Lola Bloom weigh in with what they have learned from working with older students in the garden:

“Because older children and youth make stronger and more capable gardeners, a garden needs to be designed to challenge and engage these students with more elaborately engineered designs based on mathematics and/or landscape design principles. Even a garden of primarily raised rectangular beds can become more challenging when a practice like the square-foot planting method is incorporated.” – Rebecca Lemos

“With older students who have not previously gardened, it can be very helpful to incorporate a theme or use that ties into pre-existing interests. An example of this technique is dedicating beds in the garden to growing plants to be used in an entrepreneurship project. Plants from the beds can be used by participants to make products that are branded, packaged and sold as a form of fundraising.” –Lola Bloom

For more advice on how to incorporate a garden into your Healthy Schools Program Action Plan, visit the Healthy Schools Program Resource Database.