Gardens lead us places.

A passion for gardens and their potential to transform people and communities has threaded through both my professional and personal life. As a garden-based educator, I have seen people move from gardens to greater engagement with the food system. In fact, I’ve counted on it.

I refer to gardening as “the gateway to the food system.”

In my experience, engagement with gardens leads to a heightened awareness of the food system. Gardens connect us to the infinite number of things that directly relate to our food system, including human health and well-being, the environment and sustainability, the economy, our civic life, public policy…and our place in the larger natural world and the global community.

Gardens in World War I and II

In World War I and World War II, there was a call for more gardens. For better gardens. Buried in the quickly organized National Defense Gardening Conference proceedings – drafted at a national meeting convened a mere twelve days after the bombing of Pearl Harbor – were public policy recommendations that would make sense today. They included providing funding and credit to help buy gardening supplies and equipment and adopting policies that would provide “adequate productive land for gardens for tenants.”

Image courtesy Museum of Ventura County. Credit: Aysen Tan.

The school garden movement received a huge boost during World War I, when the Federal Bureau of Education introduced the United States School Garden Army. During the interwar years and the Great Depression, youth participated in relief gardening. In World War II, a second Victory Garden program swept the nation.

But after that, school garden efforts became the exception, not the norm, until they enjoyed a resurgence in the 1970s as part of the environmental movement. Since the 1990s, school gardens have become a vital part of the curriculum in many school districts.

If you’d like to learn more about the history of school gardens in the United States, here’s a #longread I’ve previously published.

Gardens Leading Us Forward

We should garden in schools more: many studies show that school gardens can improve academic achievement in science, among other things. Where space and other factors permit, we should develop school farms. The farm-to-school movement is strong and growing and where these programs incorporate school gardening efforts, nutrition education, they are at their best. (One prime example is the Edible Schoolyard, Alice Waters’ showcase project in Berkeley, California, which fosters an “edible education” ethos. There are many other exciting efforts across the country).

A talented team of Extension educators at Texas A&M University has developed a standards-based gardening curriculum called the 4-H Junior Master Gardener program (JMG) that has been adopted by the National 4-H Council for use nationwide in its youth programs. The program is also taught internationally. 4-H’s JMG program teaches across the curriculum, touching on aspects of science, environment, mathematics, reading, language arts and nutrition. The program also engages youth in community service activities.

You don’t have to be in 4-H to enroll in the JMG program or to receive the curriculum. It’s used by many youth organizations, in schools, after-school settings and can also be purchased for personal use at home.

Becoming a Garden Volunteer

For home gardeners, the summer season is (sadly) coming to an end. But for schools, the gardening season is just beginning. If you have the time and ability, volunteering at a school or community garden is a rewarding and life-changing experience. Help is always needed.

If you are interested in building your capacity as a gardener, consider applying to become a certified UC Master Gardener volunteer. The UC Master Gardener Program is open to those who are interested in becoming volunteers and sharing gardening knowledge with the public, through community outreach. Applicants looking to increase knowledge and horticulture experience will be considered regardless of gardening experience. Classes are taught by UC experts. These are the best gardening classes I’ve ever had. Learn more here.

In Conclusion…

This is a an important moment for America in terms of food, our future and our relationship with the global community. The future is about feeding 8 billion people, with fewer resources, less political stability and an unpredictable climate. Gardens lead us places, and they can lead us – at least in part – to solutions that will help nourish our bodies, our communities…and our spirits.


Editor’s Note: My book – Sowing the Seeds of Victory: American Gardening Programs of World War I – provides a detailed history of home, school and community gardening in the United States. It focuses on the ways in which the food policies of the past could inform us today. It includes a great deal of information about the contemporary food system, as well, and concludes with some specific recommendations about steps we can take to assure a better food system for all. For information about gardening resources available through UC ANR’s Master Gardener program, click here. The Master Gardeners are hosting a statewide conference in Long Beach in late August; learn more about how you can take part here. And here’s an uplifting story about LaManda Joy, a gardener who was inspired by the Victory Garden movement of yesteryear to create a community gardening program in Chicago.