“Gardening is something empowering that kids can do themselves, which shows them that they can make a difference. It gives them an opportunity to create something positive and dynamic.” Ping Honzay, the American Horticultural Society’s Member Programs Associate

The American Horticultural Society  is one of the oldest member-based gardening organizations in North America.  But the nation’s youngest gardeners are an important audience for this national horticultural society, which also hosts educational programs, awards and publications.

two boys in gardenFor the last 24 years, the American Horticultural Society has hosted the National Children & Youth Garden Symposium, which brings together “teachers, garden designers, community leaders, program coordinators and others involved with connecting kids to the natural world.”

To learn more about the importance of teaching children about gardening, we spoke with Ping Honzay, the organization’s Member Programs Associate. From the headquarters at River Farm in Alexandria, Virginia – which was once part of George Washington’s farmland – she shared lots of reasons why kids should get their hands dirty this summer and grow food.

 Q) Why is youth food gardening so important to the American Horticultural Society?

Ping Honzay: Gardens provide authentic, engaging, structured and safe outdoor experiences where kids can form real connections with things that matter.

Gardening teaches kids about topics like the natural world, STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math), nutrition and healthy eating habits.  But gardens also can serve as spaces to cultivate relationships and social skills as kids work together with their families, classmates and/or community members to grow food, which they can then share together. There is a source of pride and empowerment as kids watch the products of their work literally grow. Gardens are places to play, have fun and be kids.

Youth food gardening can help create healthier kids AND communities.  These youth food gardens can help fill gaps in food deserts. As young people learn about food issues and healthy habits from a young age – and bring these lessons home with them – the hope is to help create system-wide changes.

teacher in garden with kidsQ) This is the 24th year that the American Horticultural Society has held the National Children & Youth Garden Symposium. How have things evolved over the years regarding youth food gardening?

Ping Honzay: There’s much more research-based, concrete evidence on the positive outcomes of youth food gardening.  As our executive director told me, “In the beginning we were doing what we felt was right, now we know it is right.”

kids gardenThe realm of youth food gardening has really expanded.  In the past, the topic was much more focused on specialized, “classic” groups like 4-H and FFA (Future Farmers of America).  Today many other groups are interested in the topic – including groups that don’t directly have a gardening or agriculture focus, but are interested in the garden’s potential for interdisciplinary/cross-curricular learning and other benefits.

Different types of organizations are working together to assist with the efficacy and long-term viability of garden programs.  People are finding creative ways to use all sorts of sites and styles for youth food gardens.

Q) What’s new for this year’s symposium?

Ping Honzay: This is the first time in the symposium’s 24 year history that it will be held in the Carolinas!  The symposium will be in Columbia, the capital of South Carolina, in 2016.  The symposium moves to a different location around the country each year. This allows different regional projects to be showcased, and provides access to different audiences.

symposium logoWe have wonderful local hosts this year that exemplify the richness and diversity of youth gardening efforts taking place throughout the city and state. These include:

  • Clemson University Cooperative Extension, which provides research-based agricultural, horticultural and environmental education throughout the entire state;
  • Heathwood Hall, a preK-12th grade school with an expansive School Environmental Education program (SEED) including student-created and maintained gardens throughout the campus;
  • Riverbanks Zoo & Garden, where attendees will be able to explore the exciting new Waterfall Junction children’s garden, which just opened in April 2016.

Q) How does gardening teach youth valuable skills about nutrition, science, math and other topics?

Ping Honzay: The garden can serve as a setting for practical observation and application of abstract concepts. Students can see, touch, smell and eat (!) the real-world relevance and use of lessons.

There’s a tangible answer to the question, “Why should I care about this?”  For example:  the engineering behind this irrigation system, or this graph of weather data, or the understanding of plant-insect interactions or the geometry of these garden structures,  can all combine to feed you!

Learning in the garden isn’t about rote memorization. It’s about hands-on engagement, inquiry and problem-solving. The garden appeals to different learning styles and interests; it can also just be a fun place to play, which creates positive associations with the learning setting.

Q) School gardens at one time were peaking, but now appear to be dropping in number. What’s your perspective on this?

Ping Honzay: Our perspective is that school gardens are increasing (and that enthusiasm and general support are increasing as well). Unfortunately, we don’t have concrete numbers to back this up – so it really is just an opinion.  The Oregon Department of Education, however, has done a fantastic job documenting their school gardens.  It would be great to see this type of directory expanded nationwide one day.

kids planting seedsOne big issue can be sustaining existing school gardens, as parents, teachers and administrators managing and advocating for these gardens cycle out.  Support organizations and policy initiatives for school gardens can help with garden sustainability so that hopefully these programs can persist for years.

Q) Why are school gardens still relevant? How can they improve young people’s diets?

Ping Honzay: Food gardening and agriculture gave birth to human civilization as we know it today.  The way we eat affects our society and our biology. Understanding how our food is produced is fundamental for us to understand our history and heritage, and gardening allows students to experience that lesson first-hand.

Gardening is something empowering that kids can do themselves, which shows them that they can make a difference. It gives them an opportunity to create something positive and dynamic.

Having a garden can create a feeling of personal investment, ownership and pride in something you grew yourself.  We hear from teachers and program coordinators, who talk about the pride and ownership that students develop for their gardens. When other community groups get involved, it can become a point of pride and togetherness for the larger community as well.

It’s exciting to try a carrot that you planted, watched grow and pulled out of the ground yourself!  Having that experience can encourage kids to try new foods that they might not otherwise.

The produce from youth gardening programs can be immediately used in taste tests and cooking lessons. This helps kids know what to do with different fruits and vegetables when they see them in the future.  Sometimes not knowing how to prepare produce is a barrier for people to eat it.

raised beds at school gardenHaving the produce grown right in the school garden increases accessibility to that fresh produce; for example, through farm-to-cafeteria initiatives and youth farmers market programs.

Q) What worries you the most about youth gardening? What inspires you most?

Ping Honzay:  Worries – The garden is not always seen as a place where “real” or “important” learning can happen. Some may feel that the garden is just an interesting side project or even a passing fad, and that students have to go inside a traditional classroom to learn topics of importance.  Even some who recognize the benefits of youth gardening may see it as something for students to eventually grow out of, and not as an interest to be pursued long-term, or as a field with viable career opportunities.

Inspires – The people who work in this field are across the board dedicated, creative, kind, optimistic and generous.  They care deeply about their work and the people that they work with. They make incredible things happen with very limited resources, and they keep a positive outlook through it all.

Thanks for your time, Ping. Good luck with your upcoming symposium.

Readers might also enjoy:

A History of School Gardens

USDA Funding Connects More Farmers with Schools

Inspiring Gardeners Making a Difference