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Plant positivity, learn how to grow a school or community garden

a group of children stand at a table full of potted plants in a classroom

URBANA, Ill. — When green spaces fill schoolyards and neighborhoods with flowers and fresh produce, children and communities thrive. But the journey from the idea of starting a community or school-based garden to planting one that is built to last is long. What funding sources are available? Where do you plant it? Who takes care of it?

Take the first step in your gardening journey by joining the School and Community Garden Gardens self-paced online training with University of Illinois Extension. For more than 100 years, Illinois Extension’s county-based gardening experts have been a go-to resource for home growers across the state who visit, call, and email their local county Extension office.

“Over the years, we’ve had so many questions from communities and educators wanting to start gardens that we knew we needed to build a tool that integrates expert knowledge from not only Extension’s team of gardening professionals but also our nutrition and food safety colleagues,” said Nancy Kreith, an Extension horticulture educator in Cook County who helped develop the course.

School gardens are living laboratories that support the Next Generation Science Standards. Research shows that students who garden do better in school and are more likely to eat vegetables. Growing their own food helps students build skills and gives them access to hands-on learning experiences, all while they are physically active and connected with nature.

“Gardening firsthand is a life-changing experience that helps build community around healthy food, especially during the summer months,” said Dale Kehr, an Extension SNAP-Ed educator for Lake and McHenry counties who provided food and nutrition resources for the program. “We have seen schools continue on year after year feeding the community or a local food pantry after applying what they learned in this program.”

The course materials are based on research and were developed over several years with input from Extension and university experts in gardening, nutrition and wellness, SNAP-Ed, 4-H Youth Development, and natural resources.

The program is a resource for teachers and school administrators, but those interested in starting a community garden will also find valuable tools and insights. First, the course focuses on the logistics of getting support from community stakeholders, school administrators, maintenance staff, and parents as well as budgeting and funding opportunities such as grants. Then, it explores how to plan the garden plot, prepare the soil, plant, and provide maintenance, allowing teachers to dig in and learn alongside their students. Finally, it covers how to safely harvest and cook with fresh produce.

“Educators who take this course will join a community of teachers across Illinois working to build their own school gardens,” said Chris Enroth, horticulture educator serving the west central Illinois counties of Henderson, Knox, McDonough, and Warren. “Our online forums allow you to ask questions and share ideas with your fellow teachers and our horticulture experts.”

The course is $15 and can be accessed at any time from a desktop computer or mobile device. Participants continue to have access to course materials after completion, and they can communicate with other growers around the state in a question-and-answer forum. Sign up for the course at For more information, connect with your local county Extension office at

For questions or if a reasonable accommodation is needed to participate in this program, contact Horticulture Educator Ryan Pankau at or 217-333-7672. Early requests are strongly encouraged to allow sufficient time to meet access needs.  

SOURCES: Extension Educators Ryan Pankau, horticulture, and Dale Kehr, SNAP-Ed.

About Extension

Illinois Extension leads public outreach for University of Illinois by translating research into action plans that allow Illinois families, businesses, and community leaders to solve problems, make informed decisions, and adapt to changes and opportunities. Illinois Extension is part of the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences.