How to Grow a School Garden

Since everything that enters into human understanding comes through the senses, the first reason of man is a reason of the senses. . . . Our first masters of knowledge are our feet, our hands, and our eyes.

Jean Jacques Rousseau, On Education

How to grow a School Garden

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A school garden is an outdoor classroom oasis, attracting countless organisms, each a rich opportunity to teach students about the complex and fascinating ecosystem that we are all a part of. School gardens provide on-site “field trip” opportunities for students, even in the most resource-deficient schools. School gardens may be as small as raised boxes on the asphalt play yard or planter boxes on a rooftop garden. In some cases, a school may have the space to take over an unused playing field or parking lot and turn it into a mini-farm with chickens and even goats or sheep. School gardens may be designed to help students learn about food and nutrition by planting edible crops, or lessons might focus on the local habitat by planting native plants. The common denominator of all school gardens, however, is that various classes utilize them as outdoor classrooms. The class may be planned as a standards-based lesson that charts the growth of recently planted fava bean plants and measures the change in growth over time. Or more typically, the focus of the class might veer unexpectedly toward pollination, due to the unanticipated arrival of a hummingbird nectaring in the pineapple sage. In both cases, school garden lessons are connected to education standards.

Organizing principles for any school garden

A school garden is part of an ecosystem that includes students and the school community. Like any ecosystem, it is a complex twining of different life forms: a class of first graders is just one of those life forms in a school garden. Teachers, parents, students, soil bacteria, plant material, endosperm, blackbirds, crickets, roly-polies, and weather systems are all actors on the school garden stage, affecting one another, jostling for positions. Of course each garden is different, springing from the grass roots efforts of a school community.

It is no wonder that school gardens have been in existence for over a century and are presently regaining popular appeal. Historically, victory gardens and school gardens supported families in times of war by providing more calories. Since that early part of the twentieth century, our nutritional needs have clearly shifted—presently society has a surfeit of calories, but a tremendous need for better nutrition.

The present generation of school age children is largely disconnected from agriculture, nutrition, and in many cases, alarmingly distant from the natural world. As parents, guardians, and citizens of this world, we look for ways to fix this complex problem. We know we cannot expect children to care about local, not to mention distant, environmental problems when they have no connection to their own. A school garden can begin the process of finding a solution to these complex problems. Connecting children to the natural world by growing food or building native habitat gardens may give them the capacity to care about their local ecology and perhaps even larger environmental issues.

A school garden grows in an urban elementary play yard. It is wedged between the climbing structure, the flagpole, and the basketball hoops—another feature interrupting the wide horizontal expanse of schoolyard blacktop. The garden has recently been built, but already it has the great aesthetic appeal of rowdy and untamed plants vying for space. The range and variety of plantings suggests a laboratory, as does the blackboard and measuring equipment left out after yesterday’s class. Although not large, the garden has great depth, as student investigations into the mysteries and miracles of soil, microorganisms, and root patterns will attest. Looking skyward, there are opportunities to study clouds, weather patterns, and the insects and birds that are drawn to the garden’s leafy green shade. In this small patch of recently exposed earth, vegetables grow—lettuce, carrots, and broccoli planted by students who wait eagerly to taste their efforts.

It has been a remarkable experience to witness how few urban children have a connection to their own ecosystems. More remarkable, however, is how quickly they are able to establish deep bonds with nature when they are given the opportunity. The old adage “getting your hands in the dirt” is literally what students do in a school garden, and often it is the first time they have done so. Once they are engaged in this simple act, worlds are suddenly opened up. Distinguishing between “dirt” and “dirty” takes some explaining but once permission is given to engage hands, or tools, with dirt, all sorts of notions about what peers may think evaporate. It can, of course, be washed off.

There is a large gap between what public schools have and what they need. Parents have a great opportunity to help fill this gap. There are many ways to do this, but it usually boils down to either giving time or money to your children’s school. School gardens require a little of each and are an excellent and inexpensive way to add value to a school site. Gardens are also a platform on which to build community. Enriching a school on so many different levels, a garden program is a gentle rebellion of sorts—an antidote to the sour note of diminishing resources. Many parents are unsure of how to be involved in their child’s school and the school garden is an excellent interface, especially for parents who have recently arrived in this country and are excited to share their knowledge and particular ways of agriculture.

In many ways a school garden program fills the huge void left by the disappearance of home economics curricula from our schools. The valuable life skills from that curriculum, such as resourcefulness and thrift, or how to cook and shop with good nutrition in mind, or how to sit and share a meal with other people, basic civility, and even table manners, can be illustrated to some degree in a school garden. Cooking and eating from the garden might have been part of the daily life half a century ago, but it is a truly remarkable and novel experience for urban students now. A typical afternoon garden class might easily include a harvest party: students are called upon to select, harvest, wash, and cook a particular crop for their classmates. The class serves one another and sits down to eat together. While some might be surprised to see a group of second graders enjoying a snack of chopped chard sautéed in garlic and olive oil, the simple fact is that children will eat what they grow. Parents are always surprised to see their young children eating vegetables at school that they have had no luck serving at home. Some students become veritable vegetable snobs and will only eat freshly harvested baby lettuces and organic garlic, much to the amusement of all of us.