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  • Writer's pictureCathy Dyer

School Gardens Aren't Such A Great Idea After All: A Tale of Two Garden Programs

Teaching kids about gardening is great, but is public school the best place to do it?

A student at SEEDS - a successful after-school gardening program for children in Durham, NC. Founded in 1994, SEEDS is a two-acre urban garden and kitchen classroom in the heart of Durham. SEEDS develops the capacity of young people to respect life, the earth, and each other through growing, cooking, and sharing food.

School garden programs. It sounds like such a good idea. I mean, of course we support public school gardens, right? What kind of Grinch would you have to be to not support school garden programs? Children, nature, nutritious eating, loving the might hear birds chirping and angels strumming harps in your imagination just thinking about it. The idea of gardening programs at our public schools creates a warm and fuzzy feeling, doesn't it?

After experiencing a public school garden program myself, and doing just a little bit of research, I can tell you I am not as enthused about it as I used to be.

I'll go ahead and just say it: unless the school has a dedicated Garden Manager/Educator on staff and a budget for supplies, I don't think public schools are the right place for garden programs. Before I explain my position, gaze upon a few more photos taken while I volunteered at the after-school garden program at SEEDS in Durham, NC during 2018.

This is what we all have in mind when we think of a garden program for kids, right?

SEEDS is an organization, not a public school. SEEDS has a two acre urban garden (two acres!) with a chicken coop and pen full of happy chickens, a kitchen classroom stocked with equipment and appliances, and a highly educated staff who are very knowledgeable in child education, public health, and farming. Additionally, they have enough gloves, rakes, hoes, shovels, spades, wheelbarrows, insect repellent, clippers, hats, etc... to equip a small army of urban farmers.

SEEDS' full-time efforts are dedicated to maintaining their vast and diverse garden, and developing and running well-thought out gardening and cooking programs for youth. Their lessons are based on what is growing in their garden. It's spectacular to see and heart-warming to experience. SEEDS is garden programming for children and adolescents at its finest.

And now, take a look at the "garden" I showed up to at a public school in Raleigh, NC on the first day of a after-school garden program I volunteered to lead.

Keep in mind I was told by the non-profit agency supposedly in charge of the garden that a fully functioning garden loaded with vegetables and herbs was at the school waiting to be used with their rather rigid, nationally developed, structured lesson plans. The lesson plans assumed a growing garden was in place with vegetables to be harvested for preparing snacks with the students and for seeds to use for the next garden.

Just a few paces away from the above pictured garden, there were the remnants of what looks like a previous, and now abandoned, gardening project on the campus. Hmmmm.

So what went wrong?

Here's my list:

1. A total lack, or at least not adequate communication between the school and the non-profit concerning the condition of the garden.

2. No plan for maintaining the garden, especially during the summer when the school was closed and gardens need daily attention.

3. It was not clear who was in charge of what, or who was responsible for what. So nobody was in charge of anything, and no one was responsible for anything.

4. No water supply for the garden.

5. No tools - at all - for the students, or anyone, to use to maintain the garden. So tools had to be gathered from another garden location run by the non-profit, each week, and carried over to the school.

6. No cooking facilities and no kitchen supplies (such as knives, plates, napkins) were made available by the school, so those items also had to be collected and carried over on a weekly basis to perform the "snack" portion of each lesson. Also, with no vegetables growing in the garden, all the food had to be collected and carried over as well.

(Let me mention at this juncture that I drive a SMART car and could not possibly carry all these things back and forth each week on my own. So that was yet another problem.)

7. No budget for soil, mulch, plants, seeds - or anything - and no arrangements made to have these items donated, to raise funds, or to make a budget request from the school system.

Apparently the garden became an over-grown, out-of-control, weed patch of an eyesore over the summer of 2018. A lady at the school (I don't remember her position), was tasked with rounding up volunteers to clean the mess up when school resumed in the fall. She decided to clean it up by pulling it completely out. Frankly, I don't blame her. What was she supposed to do?

Why didn't she call the non-profit to come fix their little project? A project that just a year before they received a lot of positive publicity on a local news channel for? I don't know. I can only guess how I might be aggravated enough about the situation to not clue them in before ripping their mess out, too.

I tried to stay with the program, but after being directed to dig up soil and worms at one garden, load it into my car, and carry it over to the school garden to teach about composting, I decided to quit. It was week three of a 10-week program. The school staff involved had a bad attitude that was affecting the kids. The staff at the non-profit were disorganized and clueless. The whole fiasco was frustrating and disappointing and I was DONE.

The experience was invaluable because it made me rethink, or honestly think for the first time, about the realities of public school garden programs.

Our schools in NC are over-burdened as it is. They can't afford textbooks. They can't afford classroom supplies. Teachers are very clear that they don't believe they are paid enough. So who are we to think schools are able, or even willing, to establish and maintain gardens successfully on top of everything else they are doing?

Who exactly do we think is going to work the garden on a regular basis? Gardens are work, most of which is needed during the summer when the majority of schools in NC are closed. And where is the budget for all the tools and supplies needed going to come from? For storage space? For irrigation? And more than all this, is this really what we want our teachers spending their time on? I've decided I want them teaching math, reading, history, and science instead of pulling weeds and shoveling mulch with our future generation.

It turns out I am not the only one who has questioned the value of school gardens or who has realized there is a tremendous amount of organizing and planning required to make a school garden successful for more than a season or two.

Felicia Yu, a graduate student at the University of Delaware, wrote her thesis about this subject to complete her Master of Science in Public Horticulture in 2012. Her work, SCHOOL GARDEN SUSTAINABILITY: MAJOR CHALLENGES TO THE LONG-TERM MAINTENANCE AND SUCCESS OF SCHOOL GARDEN PROGRAMS details the numerous obstacles to establishing school garden programs and sustaining school gardens over time. If you are considering starting a garden at your kid's school, please read Ms. Yu's thesis.

In a nutshell, Ms. Yu explains school gardens are generally started by an enthusiastic teacher or parent, with all the best intentions. That enthusiastic teacher or parent generally puts in a great deal of effort to start the garden and keep it going, at least for a while. They may be able to get a small group of other teachers and parents to volunteer and donate supplies, at least for a while. But teachers get transferred, and parent volunteers move to new schools as their kids age, and interest in the garden is lost over time. She provides abundant statistics to back up her thesis.

School gardens are very susceptible to failure within a few years of inception if a real management plan and a reliable budget isn't established at the beginning.

Caitlin Flanagan wrote a piece questioning the value of school gardens for the Jan/Feb 2010 issue of The Atlantic, and instantly became Satan incarnate according to the Church of School Gardens. But I implore you, please join me in climbing off our high horses, swallowing a deep drink of reality, and giving her article Cultivating Failure: How school gardens are cheating our most vulnerable students an open-minded read. Basically, she argues that our schools have important subject matter to teach and that the children of farm workers are the ones who suffer the most by having limited school resources reallocated to garden projects.

I wholeheartedly believe gardening is a fun activity for kids to participate in, providing numerous valuable learning experiences. But I think there are better ways to get kids involved in gardening than establishing gardens at our public schools. SEEDS in Durham is a shining example of a better way. I also think our public school teachers should be focused on the subjects they are hired to teach. Our school system in NC is overburdened as it is.


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