How To Shape Garden Beds with Students

March means that planting season is just around the corner. Current visiting students at The Farm School are busy seeding the hardy annuals in the greenhouse that will soon be transplanted out into our garden beds. Before the little plants are able to root into their growing season homes, though, we have to uncover and incorporate the cover crop, leaf mulch, straw and other protections we used on our beds against the cold temperatures and re-shape the beds into the raised, plateau shape we prefer for the growing season.

The three tools we use for bed shaping are digging forks, rock rakes, and shovels. The only prep needed for this work is to make sure there are as many tools available as there are students, and that the garden bed area is cleared of debris and ready to be worked on. First, we invite the students into the tool shed to retrieve these tools and demonstrate how to treat them with care. Then we head out to the designated work area and describe the steps of the bed-shaping process to the students, which are:

  • Rake off any straw or weeds from the bed
  • Use shovels to scrape and loosen the first layer of soil in the pathways next to the bed into the desired garden bed area
  • Use rock rakes to pull the soil up onto the garden bed and form the edges of the bed
  • Use digging forks to turn over soil in the garden bed, incorporating any mulch left into the bed and breaking up large clods of soil  and pulling out large rocks
  • Smooth the surface of the bed using rakes or hands

I’ve noticed that the work flows better when every student has a tool to work with, and when the students are given some choice as to which tool they will use. So after I lay out all the steps, I ask the students which step they would like to perform. Almost always, there seems to be students who are most excited by shovels, and others who are most excited about the rakes or digging forks. If they all seem only excited about one tool, we set up a rotation in advance.


I have the shovelers start first by working down the sides of the beds and thinly scraping soil from the pathways into the bed. Then I have the rakers follow by pulling up loosened soil at the edges of the bed to give the bed its height. Lastly, the students with digging forks follow by turning over the soil in the beds and pulling out any large rocks that are turned up. Once all of these steps are done, we have the students smooth over the surface of the bed with their hands or the back of the rock rake. To end our session, I have the students clean and brush off their tools and put them back in their places in the garden shed. I try to leave a few minutes at the end to bring them into the greenhouse to see the plants that will soon be planted in their newly created bed and munch on some microgreens.

Students are often amazed at how much effort is required to do this type of work. While at times, it can take some encouragement and redirection to persuade them to stick with it, I often witness the pride they feel after this work is completed. They stand back and admire their beautifully shaped garden bed, saying, “That was hard work”, or, “It looks so good!” The empowerment I feel from using tools and my body to create something useful and purposeful is a major reason why I love to farm. It is no different with kids, who similarly leave our garden work period with the pride and satisfaction of knowing that their bodies are strong and powerful enough to complete the work that needed to be done.