Purpose: As students learn about climate, ecosystems, ecology, plant pests and other topics relevant to gardens, they will apply that knowledge to design a garden that would benefit the school and/or community. For students’ final project, they will design, build and present a scale model of their garden.

Procedural overview: In this activity, students will apply curricular concepts to design a garden and build a model of it over the course of the school year. Students will learn about different types of gardens and their uses before choosing what type of garden to design. This activity can be adapted to connect to many topics covered throughout the year, including climate, soils, pests, pollinators and native plants. Students will draw on what they learn to create their garden designs.

After designing a garden for their school or community, students will plan and build a 3-D scale model of their garden and present their model and the supporting garden plans in a science fair format to the school and/or local community. For their presentations, students should be prepared to answer questions that challenge their design choices. Each section of this activity is paired with one or more Science News or Science News Explores articles or activities that are related to relevant scientific topics.

Approximate class time: A school year


  • Map of the school grounds and/or nearby community
  • Binders
  • Computers
  • Soil test kit (tests for soil pH, nitrogen and phosphorus)
  • Soil sample probe
  • Model materials (paper, glue, toothpicks, popsicle sticks, paint, cotton balls, board game pieces, bingo chips, Lego pieces)
  • Poster boards
  • Plywood
  • Oversize drawing paper
  • Black or blue pens and markers
  • Color pencils
  • Paint
  • Glue
  • Student worksheet 
  • Tape measures
  • Calculator
  • Settling tubes (optional)
  • Soil triangle (optional)

Directions for teachers:

The setup

This yearlong activity is designed so it can be easily altered to fit the needs of your classroom curricula. Ideally, all students should produce a garden design, model and poster presentation. How your class gets there is up to you. You can choose as many of the sections as you want to get students to the design, modeling and presentation portions of this project.

Each section includes its own setup and is paired with suggested topics, as well as recommended Science News and Science News Explores articles.

The “Pests and problems” section is suggested for advanced high school classes. You can also choose to have students give each other feedback and reevaluate their garden plans before building their models and preparing their presentations.

Introducing the project

Introduce the activity to students as a garden design project that will be worked on sporadically throughout the year and that culminates in the creation of a model and a final presentation. This project will be completed in groups. To keep students organized, give each group a large binder to store the worksheet, notes and research materials and designate a place in the classroom where the groups’ binders can be stored for the year.

Section 1: The garden’s purpose

Suggested topics: ecosystem services, flood mitigation, temperature control, pollination, food production

Recommended articles: “Many plans for green infrastructure risk leaving vulnerable people out,” “Stores and malls buy into ponds and rain gardens for flood control,” “More than 57 billion tons of soil have eroded in the U.S. Midwest,” “Moths pollinate clover flowers at night, after bees have gone home

Brainstorm with your students to identify the functions a garden provides and have some pictures of gardens to give the students ideas. Address the types of ecosystem services that gardens (and other green spaces) provide: Food, pollination, flood control and temperature control are among them.

In advanced classes, each group can categorize the ecosystem services provided by gardens as provisional, regulating, supporting or cultural services. After reviewing the ecosystem services gardens provide, students will answer the following questions on their worksheet.

1. Identify and describe two environmental benefits provided by gardens.

2. How can plants mitigate climate hazards?

3. What benefits can come from adding green spaces to a community?

4. Are there any problems at your school or in your local community that a garden could solve? What are these problems?

5. Determine what type of ecosystem service your group’s garden will provide. How will this garden fill a need for your school or community?

After students finish the questions, each group should have identified their garden’s purpose in its ecosystem and be able to explain how the garden could benefit their school or community. Students will store their worksheet and group decision notes in their binders.

Section 2: Sun and shade

Suggested topics: Earth’s orbit, Earth’s rotation

Recommended article: “Tweaking how plants manage a crisis boosts photosynthesis

Provide each group with a map of the school grounds and/or the surrounding community. Ask students to orient the map so that north is facing up. Have them follow the instructions, answer the questions on the student worksheet and save the worksheet.

Ask students to mark where the sun rises and sets, areas that are in full sun almost all day, areas that are in shade almost all day and areas that are in between, receiving consistent partial or indirect sunlight. The amount of sunlight determines what types of plants will thrive in a garden.

1. Why is it important to consider the movement of the sun when planning a garden?

2. How is sunlight important?

3. Why is shade important?

4. Study the sun-shade markings on your map and consider what purpose your garden will serve within its ecosystem. Which location(s) have the optimal amount of sunlight for your garden type? Why?

Section 3: Siting the garden

Suggested topics: biotic and abiotic factors, ecosystems, soils, limiting factors, pH

Recommended articles: “These are the first plants grown in moon dirt,” “Fertilizer has staying power,” “Building better, safer soils,” “Scientists Say: Nutrient,” “The dirt on soil

Many factors go into deciding where to site a garden. Soil quality, sun and shade, foot traffic, water availability and terrain are factors to consider. Each group should take their map on the tour of prospective garden sites around the school or nearby community. As you walk around the school grounds and/or nearby community, ask students to label each prospective garden location on the map. Students should note whether these sites have a water source and whether they are accessible and are in an area that is visible.

After students assess a prospective site, have them collect soil samples using a soil sample probe. Students should touch the sample to assess its texture, or tilth, and determine whether the soil is high in sand or clay. Optionally, classes can create settling tubes for each soil sample, mixing soil into water and allowing it to settle and separate. Settling tubes can be used to determine the percentage of sand, silt and clay in the sample, and when used with a soil triangle, can identify the type of soil present in each location. Students should take notes on the soil’s texture.

Soil samples from prospective garden sites can be taken back to the classroom, where students can use a soil test kit to test the soil’s chemical properties. The soil test kit used for this part of the activity should at a minimum include tests for pH, nitrogen and phosphorus. Each group should test one soil sample using the directions provided in the test kit and record the results on the board. If you want to skip soil testing in the classroom, contact your local cooperative extension service to learn where to ship soils for testing.

When students complete their studies for this section, ask them to answer the following questions and save their worksheet in their binders for future reference.

1. Which locations had high visibility to foot traffic and are accessible to students of all physical abilities?

2. Which locations had easy access to a water source? Why is this important?

3. Describe the soil texture, or tilth, at each site. Did the soil texture vary from site to site?

4. Describe the soil’s chemical characteristics using the chart below.


5. Why do we measure nitrogen and phosphorus levels in soil?

6. Why is it important to measure soil pH?

7. Which locations had the best soil for plant growth?

8. How can soil composition be modified?

9. Select a location for your garden based on its visibility, accessibility, water supply, level of sunlight and soil quality. To meet the soil requirements for the type of garden you want to design, do you need to modify the site’s soil?

Section 4: Plant selection

Suggested topics: water cycle, nitrogen cycle, phosphorus cycle, carbon cycle, photosynthesis, plant reproduction, invasive species, native/nonnative species, climate

Recommended articles: “Mixing trees and crops can help both farmers and the climate,” “Urban gardens create a buffet for birds,” “Before you plant this spring, consider the birds,” “Dry farming could help agriculture in the western U.S. amid climate change,” “No sun? No prob! A new process might soon grow plants in the dark,” Plant Hardiness Zones, “76 percent of well-known insects fall outside protected areas,” “Flower shape and size impact bees’ chances of catching gut parasites

This section can be completed when your curriculum addresses nutrient cycles, plant-animal interactions, native species, invasive species, nutrient cycles or photosynthesis. If you do this section while covering nutrient cycles, remind students of plants’ roles in the carbon, phosphorus, nitrogen and water cycles.

After students learn about plants’ roles in ecosystems, provide each group with the worksheet for this section. Using online resources, students will answer general questions about plants and questions about invasive, native or nonnative plants in the local ecosystem.

Students will then use online resources to identify their local climate and to develop a list of plants they would like to include in their garden design. The USDA’s Plant Hardiness Zones map is a useful resource that can help students with this part of their work. Gardeners use such zone maps when determining which plants can survive in their area. Although there are zone maps for heat and cold, students should focus on cold hardiness. Students should know the minimum temperatures at which plants on their list might survive. Remind students that they will have to justify their plant choices. The finished worksheet should be stored in the group binder for future reference.

1. What are annual, biennial and perennial plants?

2. What are typical life spans for shrubs and trees in a garden?

3. Considering life span, how might including larger plants in a garden be beneficial?

4. What is the relationship between plant life span and garden maintenance?

5. What are the benefits of planting native species?

6. Under what circumstances might you plant nonnative species in your area?

7. What is the difference between planting a nonnative species and planting an invasive species? How can you tell if a plant species is invasive? What plants are invasive in your area?

8. What is the climate in your area? Include precipitation levels and low, average and high temperatures.

9. What is a plant hardiness zone? In what USDA hardiness zone is your school?

10. Why is it important to consider local climate and USDA hardiness zones when selecting plants?

11. What type of garden are you designing? What kinds of plants would this type of garden need?

12. Identify plants that would be suitable for your garden. Fill out the chart below.

Plant speciesNative/
Light needsWater needsNutrient needsLife span

13. In the garden, will the different kinds of plants be separated or planted together? Which plants will be placed near each other?

Section 5 (high schoollevel): Pests and problems

Suggested topics: invasive species, pesticides, crop rotation, physical pest controls, biological pest controls, integrated pest management

Recommended articles: “Invasive jumping worms damage U.S. soil and threaten forests,” “Pesticides can have long-term impact on bumblebee learning,” “Why are bees vanishing?

This section, which investigates the pros and cons of different pest control methods, is best suited for advanced high school classes. Students will need access to the internet to answer the questions. After students determine the pest control method that they will recommend for their garden, they should store their worksheet in their group folder.

1. What is a biological pest control method? Identify a commonly used biological pest control method and describe how it works.

2. What are the pros and cons of using biological pest control methods?

3. Most chemical pest control methods use pesticides. What are the different kinds of pesticides?

4. What are the pros and cons of using a chemical pest control method?

5. What is a physical pest control method? Identify a commonly used physical pest control method and describe how it works.

6. What are the pros and cons of using physical pest control methods?

7. What is integrated pest management?

8. What are the pros and cons of using integrated pest management?

9. Identify a pest control method that is safe to use in a high-traffic area and that is safe for your type of garden. How do you recommend that this pest control be implemented?

Garden construction

Students need to consider what materials are required to construct their garden and what those materials cost. To assess material needs, students must measure the area of the proposed garden and create a sketch where they note how much wood, hardscape (stone and bricks) and soil are required. There should also be an estimate of the number and types of plants needed.

Remind students to use metric measurements for the garden’s area and to include those measurements on the sketch. Students may use a calculator to calculate the volume of soil and soil amendments required and the quantities and costs of other materials. After students finish their work, they should store their worksheet in their group’s binder.

1. Will plants be planted directly in the ground or in garden beds?

2. If using garden beds, will the garden beds be raised or sunk?

3. If using garden beds, what materials will you use to construct the garden beds?

4. If using garden beds, what size are the garden beds?

5. Will soil or soil amendments be added to the garden? If so, what soil and/or amendments will be added and in what quantities?

6. Will your garden include any seating or pathways? If so, what materials will be used and in what quantity?

7. Create a list of all materials needed for your garden, including construction materials (wood, stone, brick), soil, soil amendments and plants along with any optional inclusions, like seating or pathways. If you created a pest control plan for your garden, include the materials for your pest control method.

8. Calculate the cost of all materials listed in question 4.

9. Evaluate the cost of your garden. Does it feel like an appropriate budget? Make cost adjustments as necessary.


After students finish the previous sections, provide them with a list of specifics they need to include in their garden plan based on the topics covered through the year. Each group should refer to the worksheet they filled out during the year to make their garden plan and to do the final design sketch. The sketch should be to scale, ideally in metric measures. Have students store their completed plan and sketch in their group’s binder.


Optionally, after each group has completed its plan and sketch, students can submit their work for your feedback. Check that all necessary components are present and that the group’s proposed project is feasible. After groups receive your feedback, give them time to make revisions.

Modeling and poster preparation

After groups finish their plan and sketch, they can begin modeling. Remind students to scale their model and mark the scale on the model. A possible scale could be 5 centimeters to 1 meter. Although the scale used by each group will vary, the units and scale should remain consistent across the model. Groups will create the 3-D garden model of their garden plan using the materials provided. Large-scale models should be built on plywood for stability.

Groups will also use this time to create a poster presentation. The expectations for each model and poster presentation should be stated clearly in a rubric provided to the students.


Students will present their models and posters in a science fair–style event open to school staff and members of the local community. The groups will present simultaneously to attendees, who can be encouraged to ask questions and offer critiques. The goal of this science fair–style event is to have the school administration or a community organization implement one of the garden designs. Optionally, attendees can vote for the groups that gave the most compelling presentations, and awards can be given to the top three groups.