Published by City Farmer, Canada's Office of Urban Agriculture


The Case For More

High School Gardens

By Wei Fang (C) Copyright, 1995

Wei Fang is a sophomore at Brown University, concentrating both on Visual Arts and Education (public policy). He was born in Montreal, but grew up mostly in Portland Oregon. This is Wei's "research as service" paper for his course The History of American Education.

"Most of the research I did showed that elementary school gardens were over represented in comparison to high school gardens. I had a garden at the K-12 school that I went to, although it was not very well kept or used."

Imagine cultivating a vegetable garden. The soil and plants involve physical contact with nature, reveal biological processes, and provide concrete examples of theoretical principles. The garden can serve as a source of artistic inspiration and as a means of creative expression. Now consider how a gardener and a student can be one. A garden and the knowledge gained by gardening can be incorporated, integrated, and used to its fullest academic, experiential, and social potentials, not only outdoors, but also inside a high school classroom.

Gardens are unique to their place and time, as are the schools and students that create them. This means that gardens can be tailored to meet the educational needs of different students and adapted to fit different high school curricula. Gardens are very flexible in their form and function, and as such can be shaped by the style and goals of individual teachers. Since methods of planning, planting, and maintaining of a garden are unique to the particular garden and gardeners, the gardening experience itself is a fundamentally unique learning process. While developing and caring for a garden requires hard work and is by no means an easy task, the benefits to teachers and students are outstanding and well worth the commitment.

While the use of gardens as educational resources has been predominantly limited to primary schools, the skills gained through gardening are beneficial to students of all ages. Since they involve experiential and cooperative learning, school gardens have long been advocated as effective learning tools by many educational philosophers and reformers. The high school garden serves as a foundation from which valuable lessons about the environment are learned. In doing so, it fosters and strengthens a community. The communal, environmental, and social discoveries made in growing a vegetable garden provide academic and personal challenges for high school students. We want to plant seeds in people's minds about how a garden can work for students, teachers, their school, and their community.


The History Behind School Gardens:

Why They Came to Be

Schools and gardens became affiliated during the first decade of the twentieth century as educational reformers and philosophers began to stress the correlation between learning and personal, active experience. They were conceived as a means of "bringing boys and girls into closer relationship with their environment," but educators recognized that "the development of strong-bodied, efficient, and contented citizens is the real purpose and the main result of this work" (Jarvis 10). This type of experiential learning developed momentum across the country; in 1910 there were approximately 80,000 school gardens maintained in the United States (Conference on Agricultural Education 4). Gardens, and in the larger context, nature, have long been a component of what educational progressives have associated with "real life" or "hands-on" learning.

In the mid 1800s, Francis Wayland, former president of Brown University and educational reformer, advocated the active acquisition of knowledge through experimentation in the physical world. In The Pursuit of Knowledge Under Difficulties, he discussed how, rather than simply using principles to disprove theories, great thinkers learned directly from the natural world, or as he refers to it, "the book of Nature": "Newton pursued it [the book of Nature] as a volume altogether worthy of being studied for its own sake" (Wayland 12).

Another advocate of experiential learning, John Dewey, believed in creating a community within the school where a child's individuality could be continually cultivated in the social context:

...freedom is power: power to frame purposes, to judge wisely, to evaluate desires by the consequences which will result from acting upon them; power to select and order means to carry chosen ends into operation (Dewey 64 ).

As a leading educational reformer and philosopher in the early 1900s, Dewey sought to educate through "social occupations"--learning fundamental principles and skills through practical efforts. He found it essential to connect academic subjects with students' own experiences. In creating opportunities for students to have such experiences, Dewey encouraged teachers and students to get out into nature, to touch it and to feel it; at his University of Chicago Laboratory School, students maintained a garden. As Herbert Kliebard noted, at the Dewey School "reading, writing and arithmetic were things that occurred naturally in the course of building a clubhouse, or cooking, or raising a pair of sheep" (Kliebard 67).

A distinction has long been made between the implementation of gardens in rural and city schools: "the rural school garden should form a laboratory for the practice of problems..." (Conference on Agricultural Education 5). When gardens began appearing in urban elementary schools during the early 1900s, they were a response to teachers' acknowledgment that "the traditional methods of training are not meeting effectively...the ever-changing industrial and social conditions" (Jarvis 9).

Currently, school gardens are more likely to be found in suburban communities. One cause for this lack of gardens in city schools is noted by Running-Grass, executive director of the Three Circles Center for Environmental Justice. He says, "even where environmental education is available, it largely bypasses children of color and their communities...environmental education for most children is a privilege and not surprisingly, it is often found in privileged, suburban settings rather than low income, urban core or isolated rural areas" (27). By dealing directly with the earth, city students come into contact with healthy environmental practices to which they might not otherwise have access.


Why Aren't There More High School Gardens Now?

From an uninformed perspective, gardens might be seen as lacking in academic value, function, and relevance. They might be too expensive, take up too much time due to their labor-intensive demands, or require enthusiasm from students and teachers to maintain them. However, some of these objections can be avoided in the way the garden is planned and implemented, and while others may indeed be valid difficulties, depending on the individual school and its shortcomings, the benefits of gardens to students, teachers, and the community far outweigh their costs.

The expense of a garden depends on the nature of the garden: its desired crops, expected yield, location and availability of land, and design can all affect cost. With any garden there will be some expenses incurred, but there are organizations and people that can help. Local clubs and gardening associations, parents, and local businesses are often willing to donate seeds or gardening tools. Local government and neighborhood organizations can lend money to fund the project, and there are many private foundations that offer grants for innovative education programs. Since gardens produce a material commodity, they can be designed as a for-profit business venture. With time, patience, and commitment, school gardens have made money.

Gardens are hard work, for they are a group project: "the advantages of project teaching are that a project frees, interests and occupies the individual worker...a project awakens initiative, responsibility, and ingenuity...the project method means less teacher and more pupil; it means learning by living" (Kilpatrick 69). The planning and preparation, organizing and funding, designing and building, planting, cultivating, and maintaining of a garden require a great deal of time, energy, and effort. It is therefore essential that the school supports the effort of the students and teachers involved in this venture, and it is helpful, but not necessary, for the teacher to have some knowledge of, or experience in gardening.

Considering the use of gardens in high schools, Lawrence Wakeford, a Professor of Educational Studies at Brown University and former high school science teacher, notes a possible obstacle in the fact that secondary school curricula are often more structured than those of primary schools. A highly-structured curriculum can mean less flexibility in lesson plans, which could pose difficulties for the teacher. Contrary to this, historically, elementary schools' curricula have largely been centered around the education of the whole child. While high school curriculum "derived its impetus from the standards of adult living" and worked "in the direction of preparing children and youth for a distinct adult role," elementary school curriculum "took the immediate life of the child as the starting point... and conceived of the curriculum as the forum where the child can realize his or her own purposes" (Kliebard 158).

For the most part, high schools separate and classify students by their ability to perform on academic tests, their grades and past school experience, and their goals and possibilities for the future. "The subject designations in English, social studies, science and mathematics were maintained [at the secondary level] whereas in the elementary school curriculum, an attempt was made to integrate all subject areas" (Kliebard 192). Gardens, unfortunately, are not the end-all solution for detracking, but they do provide intense challenges for all students and a technique for high school teachers to use the ideas of experiential education that past- and present-day educational reformers have advocated.


Types of Learning Incorporated in Gardens

Learning from direct experience is fundamental in school gardens, as students are involved in the activity hands-on. Jane Potter, author of Teaching in the Whole Garden, wrote that "children learn best by doing. Doing requires motivation, curiosity, some freedom to experiment and explore, and an opportunity to put basic skills to practical application" (39). This type of hands-on learning was recently advocated by a panel of the U.S. Government's National Assessment of Education Progress, who argued that "to foster the types of learning desired, teachers will need to act more as facilitators of learning and students will need to become more active doers and thinkers in the classroom rather than simply passive recipients of information" (Sizer 149). Dr. Gary Pennington, a Professor of Education at the University of British Columbia, cites Illich's idea that through gardens, "learning is most effective [because] the subject matter is 'demystified', is immediate and familiar to the learner" (1).

Through gardens, high school students deal directly with the abstract scientific equations, mathematical calculations, and problem-solving that are taught in the classroom. They also utilize various forms of writing, such as descriptive, persuasive, and analytical styles. Students are able to see, touch, and analyze the processes that created and support the theories they read about in textbooks. The subject matter is brought closer to the students as they keep working with and learning from it. While "no one set of teaching strategies will work best for all students at all times" (Armstrong 65), gardens present a variety of ways that students can demonstrate their ability, effort, and knowledge. Coinciding with Howard Gardner's theory of Multiple Intelligences, gardens incorporate the opportunity for high school students to solve problems and create products in "context-rich and naturalistic settings" (Armstrong 65), while using their linguistic, logical-mathematical, spatial, bodily-kinesthetic, and interpersonal intelligences. This is experiential learning in its essence; real life experiences, gardens draw together skills from many different disciplines.

In addressing the educational needs of a student, Dr. George Wood, principal of Federal Hocking High School, says: "...math, science, English, social studies, blend into one another, which is, after all, the way the world really assume that teaching [students] a fragmented curriculum will lead them to a unified sense of place and person is unrealistic" (177, 183). Parallel to this is Potter's assertion that "curriculum design in schools should recognize that education addresses the whole child as well...there is not a math child, a reading child, or a science child, but rather one person absorbing all the subject areas into one brain which attempts to organize the input into some meaningful pattern" (Potter 29). Gardens connect different disciplines and learning methods. They serve as outdoor classrooms where the amount of rainfall effects the growth of the vegetables. The spatial design of the garden helps students relate to the slope of the land and the pH of the soil. Bacteria, cells, insects, and the physics of geology can be studied in a garden. They illuminate the essential nature of water and its impact on all living things. From a garden, students can maintain a daily journal that explores and describes how living things grow and change with nurturing care.

At Dorchester High School in Massachusetts, an interdisciplinary course centered around a school/community garden is part of the academic curriculum. Within the course the students learn to use technology through the composition of daily journals and records on computers. In tending the garden, they also deal hands-on with concepts in botany and ecology. Students are "made more aware of science and the natural world and... have a better understanding of science and technology" (Barr 10).


Environmental Values

High school gardens also afford a greater understanding and awareness of the environment, and particularly, one's place within that environment. "While 90% of our children feel it is the major issue in their lives, ... few adults follow their earlier inclinations to be involved with the natural world"(Nabhan & Trimble 40). If we are to believe that nature revolves around cycles, it is imperative that we, as humans, see ourselves as part of those cycles. Barbara Earnest, director of the Green Guerrillas, a nonprofit gardening group in New York City, believes that exposure to gardens promotes an environmental ethic: "adults can't expect kids to grow up to care about the environment...if they haven't experienced nature as children" (Dwight 33). In many ways, gardens can help students realize their place in nature.

Since a healthy garden requires planning, maintenance, and nurturing, students must involve themselves with it intimately. "It is impossible for a child to work [in a] garden without tuning himself to certain universal laws...while he is grubbing in the earth, stirring the soil untiringly so as to let in the moisture and the air, nature's secrets are sinking deep into his heart" (Williams 7). By engaging students in such ways, gardens help students see directly that their interactions with the garden can either help or hinder the growth of other living things. They see that their energies and contributions to the garden will in turn, yield them material benefits such as vegetables to eat and flowers to smell. Furthermore, they will gain a greater sense of appreciation and value for that which grows out of the garden because they understand that they play a crucial role in its production; they were part of its cycle of growth. As L. Jackson Newell said, "A breakfast table looks different to someone who has milked cows, churned butter...and dug potatoes" (Nabhan & Trimble 128).

Environmental education should "illuminate the essential idea that all cultures have a relationship with the natural world which they and all others can draw upon for understanding and inspiration" (Running-Grass 29). Since high school gardens are located near or at the schools, they encourage students to experience and learn from nature within a familiar setting. They help students realize that their community is also part of the environment, thus fostering connections between the two.


Cultivation of Personal Skills

The work that goes into a high school garden teaches lessons with applications outside the classroom as well. Karneal Thomas, a landscape architect who helped students design Harlem's Success Garden, cites "values of hard work, discipline, being prompt, following directions, and making decisions" as the "basic practices of living" are reinforced through gardening (Dwight 32). High school gardens can provide students with "lessons in business integrity and moral courage, and at the same time show children how they may, in one way, at least, earn an honest living" (Jarvis 18).

Cooperation is certainly necessary for a successful garden, and the value of teamwork has been noted by many educational reformers. Ted Sizer, Professor of Educational Studies at Brown University and founder of the Coalition of Essential Schools, stresses the importance of providing opportunities for students to gain these skills:

The real world demands collaboration, the collective solving of problems...learning to get along, to function effectively in a group, is essential...the act of sharing ideas, of having to put one's own views clearly to others, of finding defensible compromises and conclusions, is in itself educative (Sizer 89). Generation One, a program run through Providence's Smith Hill Community Center, enlisted teenagers from the neighborhood to plan and maintain a community garden. Tom Twitchell, director of the program, said in a telephone interview that the teens overcame their cultural differences to form "a cohesive team", thus fulfilling one of Sizer's goals for education. He also stressed the importance of the "adult challenge" of maintaining the garden in fostering a sense of independence in the gardeners.

Imagine cultivating a vegetable garden. The soil and plants involve physical contact with nature, reveal biological processes, and provide concrete examples of theoretical principles. The garden can serve as a source of artistic inspiration and as a means of creative expression. Beyond growing flowers for making bouquets and vegetables and fruits as a source of nourishment, gardening is in its core a celebration of life. Now consider how a gardener and a student can be one. A garden and the knowledge gained by gardening can be incorporated, integrated, and used to its fullest academic, experiential, and social potentials, not only outdoors, but also inside a high school classroom.

Community Values

In addition to the development of personal and interpersonal skills, gardens also promote a sense of community and can contribute to the improvement of the area in which they are located. As students learn that a healthy garden takes thought and care, they can translate that knowledge into improving their surroundings. For instance, in New York City in the early 1900s, Mrs. Henry Parsons recognized how in the place of vacant lots, a beautiful and fruitful garden can be part of community empowerment. She said, "The dumping ground of material refuse and the dumping ground of fallen humanity became on the one hand a garden; on the other, an uplifted community" (Conference on Agricultural Education 4).

The Success Garden, planted and maintained by students and residents in Harlem in 1990, also gave the community "a new sense of itself" (Dwight 32). As Karneal Thomas, a landscape architect who helped sixth and seventh graders design the garden, noted: "it has to do with the self-confidence and pride of the kids...they now feel 'we are worthy of this beautiful garden across the street' -- not just a vacant lot where people deal in drugs" (Dwight 32). The garden served as a site for many neighborhood functions, such as picnics and concerts. In this way, the community was brought together.

"The natural world does not judge. It exists" (Nabhan & Trimble 23). A high school garden allows everyone to contribute to its growth and production. The challenging learning opportunities that stem from these gardens are inclusive of all students, regardless of age or academic skill. They do not discriminate based upon race, class or physical ability. "Access to appropriate environmental education is a civil rights issue connected historically to the struggle for equal access to educational opportunity and resources" (Running-Grass 28). Nancy Schniedewind and Ellen Davidson noted the benefits of diverse groups in educational situations: "in heterogeneity is mixed groups, students have the chance to learn from others with diverse life experiences, perspectives, and skills" (40).


Conclusion: High Schools Need Gardens

History shows us that gardens have been successful tools for cultivating academic, personal, and interpersonal skills in primary schools. Educational philosophers, reformers, and teachers have long advocated the experiential learning undertaken in school gardens. Starting and maintaining a successful high school garden takes time, energy, and funding. However, there are resources available to overcome these obstacles. Moreover, there is an undeniably significant amount of growth in educational, environmental, and communal learning that stems from high school gardens. They are an underutilized resource whose implementation benefit all who are involved.

Works Consulted

Donate Now

Resource List

Steve Barr
Dorchester High School/Community Garden
Dorchester High School
Peacevale Rd.
Dorchester, MA 02124
(617) 635-8904

Curt Hall
Southside Community Land Trust
(401) 273-9419

Michael Levenston, Executive Director of City Farmer
City Farmer: Canada's Office of Urban Agriculture

Sandy Parsons
Providence CityYear
(401) 553-2500

Tom Twitchell
Generation One
The Smith Hill Center
110 Ruggles Street
Providence, RI 02908
(401) 455-3880 x226

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Revised November 26, 2008

Published by City Farmer
Canada's Office of Urban Agriculture