relationship Building for Program Success

Summary of findings from the 2021 SGSO Leadership Institute. Compiled by Vanessa Sparrow, Food Literacy Coordinator Powell River School District, British Columbia & Anne Muller Outdoor Learning Specialist Austin Independent School District, Texas


The success of garden-based education programs delivered by SGSOs is directly related to the extent that they are able to build trusting relationships and robust partnerships with a diversity of stakeholders – from School Districts, to government entities, community businesses, teachers and students themselves. While program content and delivery format is important, it is clear that there are myriad ways to approach this successfully – in gardens or at farms, using external Garden Educators or on-site teachers, once a week or once a month; it is taking the time and having the patience to build lasting relationships that is the key factor that allows for successful program implementation.

Smile Friends

Emerging themes

Within the broader theme of relationship-building, a number of sub-themes emerge:

  • Starting where you already have good relationships/connections and working from there – build on strength
      • ie. Partners for Education, Agriculture and Sustainability and Gardens to Grow in were both started by teachers who saw a campus or district need for direct school garden support.
  • Being creative with diverse partnerships that align with your mission
      • ie.  Watershed Protection society, food security programs, local nurseries, waste haulers, etc.)
  • Not putting all your eggs in one basket – a range of partners makes the program more resilient and sustainable

Elements of Success:

  • Getting to know campus staff at the beginning of the year
  • Scheduling garden time/lessons for every teacher so that all grade levels are involved
  • Understanding where teachers needs are with regard to curricular learning and finding ways to add value to that – and making that easy for teachers by providing materials
  • Involving high school students as trained Garden Educators can create a highly effective “full circle” of GBE – students who received the program in elementary school can go on to become deliverers of that program, creating a deep connection to the program and an abiding interest in creating school garden culture wherever they are.
  • Working with Facilities Departments – these are key people to have on board!
  • Embedding school gardens into the culture of the school, e.g. integrate the garden into school wide events, have outdoor/school garden connections in lesson plans, serve food from the garden in the cafeteria
  • Providing garden maintenance support where needed – don’t assume that teachers and schools will be able to do all of the maintenance and gardening

Elements of Success: 

  • Showing appreciation for what teachers are doing, e.g. gift card drawings for survey responses, thank you notes at the end of the year. You can also share gifts from the garden, such as handmade seed packets, flower bouquets, etc.
  • Helping teachers out, e.g. participating in school work days, helping to judge the science fair, etc.
  • Letting teachers know you see how hard they are working
  • Sending hand-written thank yous to partners and sponsors
  • Incorporating partner sponsors and logos on website/newsletter communications

Elements of Success:

  • Having lots of contact with teachers and other school staff – go to meetings, send emails, be in the garden and be involved in school life as much as you can
  • Connecting through social media (share others posts as needed)
  • Sharing what you are doing, e.g.  by putting up information on the school bulletin board (and in newsletters, etc.)
  • Garden Committees can help a lot with creating consistent communication
  • Making your communication personal, where appropriate: initiate face-to-face meetings over coffee – or wine! (obviously not possible at this time) 
  • Sending ad-hoc emails with pictures of things happening in the garden, events, etc. 

Creating trust and working from the “inside out” not the “outside in”

Elements of Success:

  • Going to all the District level (especially School Board) meetings that you can!
  • Involving yourself in a wide range of community food-related activities/events – literally getting your hands dirty at the community garden or local farmers’ market
  • Inviting key people (Board Trustees, Superintendents, principals from other schools, etc.) to see your program delivery in action – they won’t want to miss out!

listening to the needs of schools and teachers,
being willing to change it up


Elements of Success:

  • Conducting a teacher survey to elicit specific needs and interests
  • Supporting teachers with delivery of programming as much as and in the ways that they need – this will vary. Strike the necessary balance between allowing them ownership of the GBE experience for their students and supporting and resourcing them in ways that make it easy (easier) for them.
  • Not putting all your eggs in one basket – a range of partners makes the program more resilient and sustainable

Elements of Success:

  • Making sure that staff are paid (preferably full-time)
  • Ensuring there is a budget for professional development – investing in the people you trust to deliver your program and giving them the support and skills they need, in particular communication skills)
  • Creating an organizational environment that fosters the same trust and confidence in your educators that you are building with teachers and students, e.g. by having lots of opportunities for staff to reflect on and share their experiences
  • Providing consistency with staff schedules so that staff or educators are assigned to their school for a full year or multiple years 

Relevant Information & Resources

Ripe For Change: Garden-Based Learning in Schools – by Jane S. Hirschi

This book takes a big-picture view of the school garden movement and the state of garden-based learning in public K–8 education. The book frames the garden movement for educators and shows how school gardens have the potential to be a significant resource for teaching and learning.

Sample SGSO’s Logic Models that help guide their work and mission. It’s helpful to start with one of these in order to work backwards from your intended impacts to figure out how to achieve goals.
Learn more about Logic Models and Theory of Change:

Examples of Contracts and MOU’s used to solidify formal relationships with schools and/or districts.


Network Building – 4 Network Leader Principles

Cultivating a Successful School Garden Network – Notes from Washington DC

Potential partnerships for school garden development. Types of people and their potential support roles.

Washington DC’s Recommended School Garden Provider List is a great example of potential partner organizations

SGSO Webinars Worth Watching