George Lucas Educational Foundation
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How Does Your School Garden Grow?

Suzie Boss

Journalist and PBL advocate
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On a crisp fall morning, I watched students at Lewis Elementary School, in Portland, Oregon, roll up their pant legs and wade barefoot into piles of sand, clay, straw, and water.

Credit: Suzie Boss

There were smiles galore and a few squeals as kids squished the earthy mixture called cob between their toes. It was messy, sure, but also meaningful. Using an ancient method called natural building, students were constructing a brand-new bench for their ever-expanding school garden.

During the months ahead, students can look forward to gathering on their high-backed, curving bench for science investigations, art projects, and story writing. Teachers will share the space, too, for al fresco lunches and quiet conversations. And when parent volunteers meet on the bench, they can reminisce about the chilly day when they helped kids turn mud into something lasting.

Project by project, that's how the Lewis Outdoor Education Center grows. The school offers a good example of how to nurture a school garden by engaging parent volunteers and community partners, while also building a sense of stewardship among students.

Nationwide, school gardens are sprouting in all kinds of settings. More than 1,200 schools have joined the Garden in Every School Registry, maintained by the National Gardening Association. I've visited school gardens of all shapes and sizes, consisting of everything from a few planter boxes to elaborate edible landscapes. They all need careful tending in order to blossom. Here are a few strategies worth sharing:

Grow Slowly

Principal Tim Lauer, now in his seventh year at Lewis, has watched his outdoor learning space expand to include raised garden beds, greenhouses, composting bins, and even an outdoor classroom complete with eco-roof and barrels for harvesting rainwater. Located right outside a classroom wing, the garden is used throughout the day for serious academic work as well as simple relaxation.

"We didn't start with a grand plan," the principal admits. "We've been receptive to ideas and welcome people who want to join us." The outdoor classroom, for instance, was built by a local volunteer group called City Repair.

Engage Volunteers

Engaging with volunteers takes ongoing effort. Lewis has a staff member named Julia Hamlin who serves as the school's community agent, coordinating volunteer outreach and scheduling. The 60 volunteers on her roster contribute to the outdoor learning space in a variety of ways, from grant writing to light construction to summer watering teams. What motivates them to give their time?

"We're part of this school, too," said Julie LaRoche, a parent of two Lewis students who was helping students build the cob bench. "I feel like it's my community as much as it is my kids'."

The school garden doesn't produce enough vegetables to feed the whole school -- not yet, anyway. "That's down the road a bit," Lauer admits. But Hamlin organizes occasional dinners, featuring produce grown on the premises, to engage the larger community.

Support Teachers

Hamlin also works with teachers who want to integrate garden activities into the curriculum. As part of a weather unit, for instance, one class made wind chimes out of recycled metal cans and old utensils. Another class, studying U.S. colonial history, grew an assortment of red, white, and blue potatoes. Still others have used the greenhouse to germinate seeds and study the life cycle of plants.

Hamlin draws on her background in landscape design and horticulture to help plan environmental learning activities that meet teachers' instructional goals. That support makes it more likely that teachers will use the garden as a learning space.

Develop Healthy Habits

The school's Earth-friendly ethic carries over to the lunchroom, too: Parent volunteers arrive daily to wash reusable trays and silverware, reducing the school's trash bill by eliminating disposable foam trays and plastic utensils. Third graders take charge of composting scraps from the cafeteria salad bar, giving them real-world lessons in both science and service.

Make It Last

Growing such a successful school garden program doesn't happen in one season. And it doesn't last without sustained effort. Several years ago, I heard about a school that was growing its own grove of miniature apple trees. Students maintained a weather station, conducted horticultural experiments, and even sold produce in an entrepreneurship project.

The apple orchard seemed like the school's pride -- but it was actually one teacher's pet project. When he retired, there was no one willing to keep it going. The little orchard was bulldozed. It's a cautionary tale for school garden advocates.

Fortunately, there are a growing number of resources for communities that want to get their school gardens off to a healthy start. Here are a few:

Has your school started a gardening program? How have you built support for the idea? Please share your strategies.

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Comments (12) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Michael Davenport's picture

What a great lesson for our children. Not only is it fun to do, but think about what they learn. They see what happens when you plant something, water it, cultivate it, watch it grow, and then eat it. They have now seen the cycle of life. They see what happens when effort is applied and something comes from it. Let's hope that all schools do this. casino online

Michelle Smith's picture

What a breath of fresh air you are. I have read so many blogs on education, and the one thing that stands out is discord and to some level resentment. So I was very excited when I ran into your blog about school gardens. Such an old "school" idea that really needs to make a comeback. I think every school should consider how they could work any part of your blog into their school. I believe in keeping updated and teaching children about the "latest and greatest", but I do not think we have to throw out all of the old. Gardening would get the children outside and breathing fresh air, and it is completely student centered. Unfortunately, there are young people in our schools who have never had to raise and care for a garden or even a animal, and yet they are trying to raise and care for babies. *sigh*. Not only will gardening give them knowledge of the life cycle, but a sense of responsibility and pride. I believe that this activity should not be used as just something to teach our younger students, but that even high school students should be required to participate in something like this. Lord knows the things my teenager tells about her high school peers is unbelievable. I wish they were all spending some of that idle time in a garden. Thank You for this blog!

Jared T Finkelstein's picture

School gardens are becoming more popular and make such a big difference in the lives of the students. I have seen it first-hand - my company, Teich Garden Systems, has installed school gardens accross the country and in each case the gardens have become a part of various different courses including math, science and even literature.

Hopefully the trend will continue.

Jared T. Finkelstein
Teich Garden Systems

AlbertKlima's picture

[quote]We are just starting research for our school garden but a local organization Growing is a must stop. Also the Portland Public Schools has a detailed step by step instructions to help projects grow. Glad everyone is doing this![/quote] - I agree with you!

Linda Martin's picture
Linda Martin
Advanced Academics Resource Teacher from Reston, VA

Suzie, great post! Bonnie-- love your ideas and resources. Thank you. I plan to take time and explore them. For the last three years, our school has made a point of using our outdoor environment as an outdoor classroom. We have rescued a small woodland on our playground that had formally been off limits to kids and was used by the neighborhood and a spot to relax and enjoy alcoholic beverages by the looks of the trash that was left behind. The third and fourth graders rolled up their sleeves and cleaned up the mess. With the help of our cub scouts, we made seats of tree stumps for a circle of learning. Now we're using the woodland to understand and observe an ecosystem. It's become a place that is teaching us how to respect nature, too. We took our interest to the district landscape coordinator and he adopted our school and brought us more indigenous trees and now we have a tree museum! With his help, we revived old garden beds that hadn't been used in years, and now the kindergarteners and first graders have a vegetable and flower garden. Each year, we learn more ways to revive our schoolyard and turn it into a place of learning and at the same time, loving.

Suzie Boss's picture
Suzie Boss
Journalist and PBL advocate

What a wonderful example of how to grow a program that benefits kids and communities. I love all the ripples that extend from that circle of learning. Thanks for sharing.

Martha's picture
5th grade science

Easy to grow, inexpensive, and best of all, interactive, the Tickle Me Plant is a fun way to get even little kids excited about biology.
Buy just seeds or a whole kit to start the Tickle Me Plant experience. Seeds start to sprout in a few days, and within a short time will develop those fascinating leaves that quickly close up and seem to squirm away at the touch of your tickling finger! They'll pop back open in about 15 minutes, but will fold up and go to sleep at night. It is a great way to excite kids about plants, science and nature!

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