School gardening, like gardening in general has been hugely popularized during the pandemic. Teachers and families say that its hands-on lessons can also be applied to other subjects.
It can be difficult to find the right expertise, funding and labor to maintain a school garden. However, experts and teachers are coming up with creative ways to make it work.
Gardening is a great way for kids to be outside and have a purpose. Children can see the beginning, middle, and end of their project with gardens. This is what Susan Hobart, a former elementary school teacher at Lake View Elementary school in Madison, Wisconsin says. She now manages the school’s large garden, which has 12 raised beds.
She says that the gardens “relax the children and give them an entirely different perspective than if they were just sitting at a desk.”
The school’s program receives seedlings from a training program at a local state prison each spring. During spring break, a church group visits to prepare the garden for their return. Over the summer, an AmeriCorps volunteer takes over care of the garden.
Hobart states, “If we had the seedlings to purchase, it would cost $3 per one and we couldn’t afford that.”
There are many creative ways to get help if you look at your relationships with others and the communities around you.
Interest in school gardens spiked dramatically when Michelle Obama planted a garden at the White House and invited schoolchildren to help, says Toby Adams, who directs the New York Botanical Garden’s 3-acre Edible Academy in the Bronx, where schoolchildren learn about growing food. Since the pandemic, there has been another surge in interest.
Schools can offer hands-on learning opportunities in science, health, and social studies.
Adams says, “Fortunately, the major trend now is that more organizations and support network, especially regional networks to support school gardens,” Adams states. Online learning has really taken off since the pandemic.
He says, “Giving children the chance to move outside, get dirty and find worms is huge, especially if teachers are enthusiastic about it.”
Schools without enough space to grow a garden can often turn to the local botanical gardens or parks for help.
“We are located within the Bronx which is basically six-story apartment buildings. Adams says that there is limited space and vandalism. It’s difficult to find a place where 30 children can gather, not to mention problems like water access.
Gardening does not have to be done in a large space. He says it could be a container or hydroponic garden. There are many ways to make gardening work.
Hobart suggests finding a Master Gardener program, sometimes offered through universities, since graduates must put in a number of hours of free labor to earn their certification. She says, “It took us 10 years to get there, but it was worth it.”
Nathan Larson, who leads the Cultivate Health Initiative, a collaborative project involving the University of Wisconsin-Madison and statewide partners to support Wisconsin’s school gardens, says his “aha” moment came when he realized the group was supporting two gardens within 5 miles of each other, and neither knew the other existed.
“It became clear that teachers and parents involved with school gardens felt isolated and didn’t know where to turn for support,” says Larson, who wrote a free downloadable book, National Children and Youth Garden Symposium, organized by the American Horticulture Society to train teachers and others. Each year, the symposium is held in different parts of the country. The past two years it was online.
Life Lab, based in Santa Cruz, California, offers workshops for educators across the country on how to engage young people in gardens and on farms. The Junior Master Gardener Program is a youth gardening program run by Texas A&M University’s cooperative Extension network. Teachers and others can also access the National COVID-19 Outdoor Learning Initiative and the Edible Schoolyard Network, Slow Food USA School Garden Network, and Big Green.
Ron Finley is a vocal supporter of the transformative power of teaching children about growing and seeds to their city. His non-profit Ron Finley Project aims to “change the culture around food.”
Finley recalled being amazed when as a boy he saw, as part of a class assignment in his South Central Los Angeles school’s school, how a seed literally destroyed itself to become food.
Finley states that a school garden is as important as any other educational program. Gardening teaches you about the soil and where it comes from. Children who have a reverence of soil will have respect for the earth and a reverence in themselves. It should be part the primary curriculum. Gardening should not be a hobby. It is a skill that can be used throughout your life. This is one of the greatest lessons humanity has to learn.