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Know Before You Grow


Gather information and develop a plan to guide actions towards designing your Jersey-Friendly schoolyard garden or landscape. 

Why It’s Important

Planning a schoolyard garden project requires preliminary thought and preparation. You’ll want to get support from your administrators and grounds crew, define your garden’s purpose and function, and collect information about the growing conditions at your garden site. The Learning Actions in Know Before You Grow will engage your students in the garden planning process.

Learning Actions

Learning Actions in Know Before You Grow are divided into two sections: Plan Before You Plant (Step 1 in the 8 Steps to a Jersey-Friendly Yard) and Start With Healthy Soil (Step 2 in the 8 Steps to a Jersey-Friendly Yard).

Plan Before You Plant

1A: Gather support for your Jersey-Friendly schoolyard garden.

Invite the school community to be a part of your Jersey-Friendly schoolyard garden project. Be sure to have permission and support from key players, including administrators and the grounds crew, to help carry out your plans. Answering the following questions will help you get started:

  • Who will be using the garden?
  • Who will take care of the garden during the school year?
  • Who will take care of the garden during the summer? 
  • Do you have a nearby water source, such as a spigot? 
  • How will a Jersey-Friendly schoolyard garden project support your school’s mission and your curriculum?

1B: Begin brainstorming a garden project.

Start small – installing a Jersey-Friendly garden at your school doesn’t have to be a monumental task. Small changes to your school’s landscape equal big changes for a healthy environment. See the Jersey-Friendly Yards Step 1: Plan Before You Plant page for more information and resources about planning a garden.

Guide your students in a discussion about a schoolyard garden project. What features would the students like to include in a garden? Let them know a garden can have multiple functions, e.g. a rain garden that supports pollinators and serves as an outdoor classroom. Students will continue to add to their initial ideas as they complete the Learning Actions of the School Program.  

1C: Get to know your schoolyard and sketch a schoolyard map.

Take your students outside for a walk around the schoolyard to make observations and sketch a map of the schoolyard. Observations added to the map should include the location of:

  • Hard structures (e.g., buildings, sidewalks, driveways, parking lots),
  • Existing vegetation (e.g., lawn, trees, shrubs, flower beds),
  • Gutter downspouts,
  • Spigots or other sources of water for a garden,
  • Any problem areas (e.g., wet spots or signs of erosion), and
  • Other observations.

Have students determine the light conditions (e.g., full sun, part shade, shade) in different areas of the schoolyard and record them on the map. The number of hours of sunlight a day is an important consideration for a garden. Every plant species has certain light requirements. Knowing the light conditions in different areas of your schoolyard will help guide decisions about your garden location and plant selection. 

Back in the classroom, have your students discuss their observations and finish sketching the schoolyard map. Display the map prominently in your classroom. Your students will refer to it as they continue to develop ideas for their project. Be sure to get the approval of school administrators and input from the grounds crew when deciding on the location and scope of your project.

Resources for Lessons about Schoolyard Mapping

Overwhelmed? We’re here to help! You can have a Jersey-Friendly Yards representative come to your classroom to help plan your schoolyard project.

Start with Healthy Soil

Understand the chemical, physical, and biological properties of the soil in your schoolyard. Learn about the best practices for achieving and maintaining healthy and sustainable soil to support your garden or landscape, as well as protect water quality, water supplies, and living resources in your local community. 

Why It’s Important

Healthy soil is at the root of all life on Earth, providing important ecological functions. Soil stores and supplies nutrients to plants, and recycles organic materials through the process of decomposition. Soil absorbs, cleans, and stores groundwater, and channels it throughout the landscape, creating rivers, ponds, and estuaries. 

Give your soil a check-up! Provide lessons to your students that explore soil properties and help you assess the health of your soil. Refer to the Jersey-Friendly Yards Step 2: Start with Healthy Soil page for helpful information and resources.

Soil can be described using physical, chemical, and biological characteristics. Click here for a breakdown of each category, as well as Lesson Plan and Resource recommendations. What are the characteristics of the soil in your schoolyard?

After you identify a location for your schoolyard project, have students collect a soil sample there and send it to the Rutgers Soil Testing Laboratory (or other certified lab) for a soil test. Since soil conditions could vary at different locations within the schoolyard, it’s best to wait until you identify the specific site for your garden. The soil test results will provide valuable information for designing your garden project.

For this action, we recommend bringing in a guest speaker from the Ocean County Soil Conservation District. Email education@soildistrict.org to schedule hands-on activities to help students understand the components of soil.

1E: Learn how nature recycles with compost.

Once you understand the properties of your soil, you might find that it could use some amendments. This can be accomplished through the use of compost. The decomposition of our food waste can be turned into “black gold” to be used in our gardens. Refer to the Jersey-Friendly Yards Step 8: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle page for helpful information and resources.

Recycling used materials is important, and we can take our cue from nature. When a tree completes a season of growth, it sheds its leaves. This organic matter is broken down by decomposing organisms and turned back into soil. The soil holds the nutrients once held by the tree’s leaves. The tree takes in those nutrients from the soil to grow new leaves. Year after year, the cycle continues.

Provide a lesson about nature’s recycling system. Teach your students how nothing is wasted in nature through the process of decomposition and how compost can be used to enrich the soil in your Jersey-Friendly Schoolyard garden! Click here for a list of resources on decomposition and composting.

For this action, we recommend bringing in guest speakers from the Ocean County Department of Solid Waste Management. They will go over the science behind composting, as well bring in their worm bins for an exciting hands-on experience!

Ready to Submit?  

Upload the Required Documentation to Your Custom Link.

Use the custom link you received after enrolling to upload your documentation.

What to submit for the actions in Know Before You Grow: 

  • Letter confirming support from school administrators and key players. (1A)
  • Summary of student discussion of ideas for a garden project. (1B)
  • Copy or photo of the student/class sketch or annotated map of the schoolyard, showing its natural and man-made features, sun exposure, and any other observations. (1C)
  • A short write-up of the soil lessons/activities conducted by you or the guest speakers. Copy of the soil test results. (1D)
  • A short write-up of the composting lessons/activities conducted by you or the guest speakers. (1E)
  • Photos of students engaged in your lessons/activities.


Sustainable Jersey – Outdoor Classroom Completion of this Sustainable Jersey for Schools Action can substitute for Know Before You Grow, Actions 1A-1C.

Submit your Sustainable Jersey – Outdoor Classroom paperwork in lieu of requirements for Actions 1A-1C.  

Components of the School Certification Program