Taking Root

In a rising number of schools, gardens are providing students with new opportunities for hands-on learning.
By Robert C. Johnston — June 24, 1998 11 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

At first, she wasn’t sure what to expect. But after six weeks of toiling and anxiously watching over her 6th grade science project, Arlene Davis likes the results. In fact, she beams as she talks about the succulent cucumbers that she helped grow in the garden here at Summit Parkway Middle School and that were served today in the school cafeteria. Student-grown zucchini and other squash also shared the menu.

“Seriously, once you work on it, you cherish the food more,” the bubbly 11-year-old says. “I grew this. My group grew these. And they’re wonderful.”

Teachers who have gardened with their classes say that Arlene’s experience is pretty typical for students who take time out to plant and nurture flowers, vegetables, and fruits. It’s just one reason why gardening is taking root in schools across America as teachers adapt the activity for science curricula, landscaping projects, fund raising, or all three.

Thanks to everything from concern over children’s diets to marketing by garden interests to rising environmental awareness, school gardening is in. And it’s gaining popularity in schools even as educators find themselves pressed to focus classwork on basic academic skills and raising scores on standardized tests.

“Schools are moving toward outdoor classrooms based around gardens,” says David Young, the director of youth-garden grants for the National Gardening Association in Burlington, Vt. “Even if it’s just to see the miracle of something growing.”

Tilling soil and planting seeds as a way of cultivating young minds is hardly new. Long before school property was blanketed in asphalt, vegetables and flowers often lined campuses. At the turn of the century, the philosopher and educator John Dewey extolled gardening as a way to avoid the “evil” of isolated instruction. Gardening, he added, built understanding of nature and the nation’s agrarian legacy, and roused student curiosity.

For More Information

National Gardening Association 180 Flynn Ave., Burlington, VT 05401. Phone: (800) 538-7476

The American Horticultural Society 7931 E. Boulevard Drive, Alexandria, VA 22308. Phone: (703) 768-8700

During World War II, the government urged schools to plant “victory gardens” to help meet domestic food demands. By reaching students, federal officials felt that they could inspire their parents to garden as well.

Later, however, as the country’s school-age population grew and became more urban, most botanical projects moved inside from school grounds to classrooms, parsed into individual science lessons. The shift meant children received less hands-on schooling on the full life cycle of plants, from seeds, to blooms, to decomposition.

“The trouble is that children don’t get exposed to it elsewhere,” says Mary S. Rivkin, an associate professor of early-childhood education at the University of Maryland Baltimore County. She has written extensively on what she sees as the cognitive, emotional, and physical benefits of getting students out of classrooms and into natural environments. Rivkin is part of a larger school “greening” movement that promotes gardens, wetlands, trees, and the preservation of a school’s natural habitat.

Mother Nature, she says, helps introduce flavor, fragrance, texture, and adventure to the curriculum. “When students are involved with all their senses, that’s where learning is really strong.”

More schools appear to be coming around to Rivkin’s point of view.

For instance, when it opened and began providing garden-based curriculum development and teacher training in 1979, the Life Lab Science Program in Santa Cruz, Calif., served one school. Today, the non-profit group works with more than 1,000 schools from Alaska to Maine.

“We have to help teachers see how gardening is an extension of what they do, and not just something extra,” said Lisa Glick, the director of education and outreach for Life Lab.

In the 1997-98 school year, the National Gardening Association received more than 2,000 applications for its 300 youth-garden grants. Each grant through the 16-year-old program is worth $750 in products and educational materials. “It’s become quite competitive,” Young notes.

Some observers predict that expanded access to information, expertise, and funding will further nurture the trend.

Advocates say getting students outdoors and rooting around in school gardens can teach them valuable lessons about the environment, as well as good nutrition.

“Kids are losing the connection with their environment....Parents hesitate to let their kids run and explore the way they did,” says Mary Ann Patterson, the spokeswoman for the American Horticultural Society. Based in Alexandria, Va., the group expects 400 educators and youth leaders to attend its sixth annual children’s gardening symposium, which opens July 30 in Washington. “That’s one of the reasons they’re bringing back the school garden.”

On top of that, proponents argue that gardening offers a perfect means of beautifying bland and uninspired school landscapes while also cultivating learning.

“The exciting part is that you can teach across the curriculum,” Young says. “From science to math and social studies.”

But for all of its potential, some education experts say that gardening will fall short as an educational tool without careful planning. And there may be better ways to achieve one’s learning objectives.

“From my point of view, gardening isn’t the end, but an occasion for learning about science, or math, or history,” said Andrew Ahlgren, the associate director of Project 2061, a long-term science education project run by the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Washington. “One would want to consider not how interesting it is, but what is the payoff in terms of general literacy.”

For Arlene Marturano, a 6th grade science teacher at the 900-student Summit Parkway Middle School here in the South Carolina capital, nutrition is the academic hook for her garden project. Marturano’s spring science classes have finished the year with a six-week segment on nutrition gardening for each of the past six years. Her students--a mix of rich and poor, and black and white--begin by studying and identifying the nutritional value of produce.

From there, they draft plans for their plots and give them catchy names such as the Garden of Bitter and Sweet and the Garden of Seedin.

In California, state Superintendent Delaine Eastin wants a garden in every one of the state’s nearly 8,000 K-12 schools by 2000.

Next, using bedding plants donated by local nurseries, the careful young gardeners plant 8-by-12-foot plots (there are 35 in all) in a tree-ringed garden at the base of a hill 50 yards from the school.

Working in small teams, the students spend up to three 45-minute periods each week preparing their soil and planting. The pace slows to just one 45-minute session a week as they water, weed, and add mulch and compost, partly composed of food scraps collected for the class by cafeteria workers.

Marturano relies on strict organization and a firm but gentle management style to keep classes of up to 30 students on task. During a recent class, she coaches students to do a better job weeding: “That’s Bermuda grass,” she says. “It makes a good golf course, but a lousy garden.”

After six weeks, the students’ work is rewarded as brilliant red strawberries, burly cucumbers, and sturdy squash explode from under leafy canopies. Once harvested, their trophies are served in the cafeteria.

As 12-year-old Keith Green tends to his “Grocery Garden,” he concedes: “In the beginning, it wasn’t looking so good. The eggplant died, and so did the watermelon. But the tomato and cucumber came up.”

Marturano has started a statewide network of school gardeners and already has 300 subscribers to her twice-yearly newsletter. Her next goal is for her school to grow all of its own produce. It would save money and, more importantly, encourage better dietary habits, she says.

“You can’t get children to change eating habits in one class,” she reflects. “But gardening is a way to get kids to eat vegetables. I want them to think of vegetables as a fast food that can be eaten raw.”

Across the country in California, state Superintendent of Public Instruction Delaine Eastin wants a garden in every one of the state’s nearly 8,000 K-12 schools by 2000.

In fact, one of her first acts after being elected to the post in 1994 was to launch her “a garden in every school” initiative. The program is run by the state department of education’s nutrition education and training program.

“It’s a huge project,” says Deborah Tamannaie, the nutrition education consultant who oversees the California school-garden effort. “I think it’s been received well, and excitement is growing as word gets out.”

A 1996 survey found that 1,000 California schools used gardens for instructional purposes. That’s a far cry from Eastin’s goal, but the numbers are increasing. Earlier this year, the department awarded $170,000 in gardening grants to 70 school districts, using funds from the state, and from U.S. Department of Agriculture nutrition-training grants. Another 350 California schools are expected to be awarded grants by the fall.

Meanwhile, the state and the University of California, Davis, are monitoring a model school-garden project at the 800-student St. Helena Elementary School in the vineyard-rich Napa Valley. The university is studying whether St. Helena’s student gardeners eat more vegetables than their nongardening peers. “Not many of these studies have been done,” Tamannaie says. “But as interest heats up, more researchers will ask these questions.”

While eager to champion plant projects, garden experts urge educators to ease into the work.

“Gardens sound like a good idea, but people get in over their heads and start too quickly,” says Young of the National Gardening Association.

He suggests first assembling a team of interested adults, such as teachers and community volunteers. The support of school administrators and maintenance crews, whose members often control water supplies and tool supplies, is essential, he adds. And local master gardeners are also often eager volunteers.

Potential vandalism and other security issues also must be addressed.

Adds Young: “From stolen strawberries to people taking trucks and doing wheelies right on a field, you name it, it’s all happened.”

At Mellichamp Elementary School 25 miles south of Columbia in the rural community of Orangeburg, S.C., teachers, students, and parents have covered the ground behind their school with a 200-yard swath of young trees, bushes, and dazzling flowers.

Mellichamp Elementary, where most of the 325 students are black and from low-income backgrounds, is part of a growing number of schools with grounds that serve as integrated habitats for gardens, native plants, and wildlife. In other words, no space is too small for a milk-jug bird feeder, a rosebush, cornstalks, or anything with green leaves and roots.

Last month, Mellichamp was selected from a slate of contenders across South Carolina to win a school environmental award. As part of the recognition, the school was featured all that month on television public-service announcements.

Mellichamp’s efforts began five years ago with a 5-by-12-foot garden plot for special education students. After one of the severely disabled pupils died, the school created a memorial garden around a bench and a Yoshino cherry tree. School officials then waited and watched to see if students would respect the new addition to their playground.

While eager to champion plant projects, garden experts urge educators to ease into the work.

After a year passed with no damage, a few teachers spearheaded a more ambitious effort to create a lush habitat of dozens of trees and bushes along the back of the school. Since then, the movement has spread like kudzu.

“Teachers saw what was going on and put flowers in the school yard. It’s contagious,” says Principal Beverly Stroman-Spires. “Kids can see a change. There’s something here now that wasn’t here before, and they had a hand in it. That’s meaningful.”

A five-member habitat panel oversees the project and is drafting a garden curriculum aligned with state academic standards. The group also raises money for the habitat. Lollipops are sold, for example, to pay for 75 to 100 pounds of birdseed a week.

Not only does Mellichamp’s verdant campus teem with butterflies and birds, but it also lends itself to wide-ranging academic options. Today, the natural settings provide soothing backdrops for “reading centers,” or clusters of picnic tables for students. In March, 11 volunteers from the federal AmeriCorps national-service organization built an outdoor classroom and a 100-yard pine-bark walkway through the magnolia trees, plum trees, and other labeled plants in the school’s main habitat area.

Also this spring, students built a “literature garden” consisting of eight 4-by-15-foot plots, each one linked to a book they have read. For example, The Jack and the Beanstalk garden features Jack’s Shack, a 5-foot-tall wooden frame with bean plants growing up its base.

Nearby, the “ABC Garden” showcases a plant for each letter in the alphabet, from aster to zinnia.

During a recent schoolwide exhibit in the garden, 9-year-old Thomas Russell tells two dozen 2nd graders gathered around him about the ABC Garden, which he helped grow. He sounds as wise as an old farmer.

“Are you ready to learn something important about plants?” the 4th grader asks with genuine enthusiasm. “If you know the plant, treat it right, and be nice to it, it will grow.”

Thanks to Thomas and others, Mellichamp Elementary School is in bloom, in more ways than one.

“We see a lot of new pride in teachers,” says Melissa Smith, one of the school’s habitat leaders. “It’s a big deal to be a teacher at Mellichamp now.”

A version of this article appeared in the June 24, 1998 edition of Education Week as Taking Root


This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Mathematics Webinar
Pave the Path to Excellence in Math
Empower your students' math journey with Sue O'Connell, author of “Math in Practice” and “Navigating Numeracy.”
Content provided by hand2mind
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Recruitment & Retention Webinar
Combatting Teacher Shortages: Strategies for Classroom Balance and Learning Success
Learn from leaders in education as they share insights and strategies to support teachers and students.
Content provided by DreamBox Learning
Classroom Technology K-12 Essentials Forum Reading Instruction and AI: New Strategies for the Big Education Challenges of Our Time
Join the conversation as experts in the field explore these instructional pain points and offer game-changing guidance for K-12 leaders and educators.

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Science Q&A How High School Students Are Making STEM Education Accessible for Younger Kids
Team STEAM is a program where high school students help elementary students develop STEM skills.
3 min read
Students from MC2 STEM High School in Cleveland critique their classmates’ projects for an event that blends STEM and art on March 16, 2017.
Students critique their classmates’ projects for an event that blends STEM and art in Cleveland on March 16, 2017.
Allison Shelley for All4Ed
Science Opinion How to Teach Students About Climate Change—Without Giving Them Eco-Anxiety
Climate science education is essential, but the wrong approach can damage young people’s mental health, warn two students. Here are 4 tips.
Willa Grifka & Luke Williams
4 min read
Photo illustration of a green nature filled silhouette of a person standing in contemplation looking at smoggy urban cityscape.
Science White Students Are Less Concerned About Climate Change Than Students of Color. Here's Why
Nearly half of white teenagers said the threat of climate change hasn't affected their plans for the future.
4 min read
A person is faced with a decision between an open doorway placed on a dry, dark, cracked ground with dark skies or an open doorway placed on bright green grass with blue skies.
Science Rural Students Are More Skeptical of Climate Change. What Should Teachers Do?
Nearly 8 in 10 U.S. teenagers agree with the scientific consensus that climate change is real and mainly caused by human activity.
2 min read
Digitally generated image of a forked road. It leads in two directions. One towards a bleak future where climate change has destroyed the enviroment. The other way shows a way towards prosperity with renewable energy and a sustainable climate. In the middle of the road stands a 3D-model person.