“With the love of the school garden has grown the desire for a home garden and some of their plots at home are very good…Since commencing the garden work the children have become better companions and friends…and to feel that there is a right way of doing everything…it is our garden…We try to carry that spirit into our schoolroom.”

In 1909, Ventura, California schoolteacher Zilda M. Rogers wrote to the Agricultural Experiment Station at the University of California, Berkeley, a primary proponent and provider of garden education resources for schoolteachers. Rogers wrote in some detail about how her s5424173013_70cd1c800d_ochool garden work had progressed, what the successes and failures were, how the children were responding to the opportunity to garden, how her relationship with the children had changed as a result of the garden work and what she saw as potential for the future. She wrote this:

“With the love of the school garden has grown the desire for a home garden and some of their plots at home are very good…Since commencing the garden work the children have become better companions and friends…and to feel that there is a right way of doing everything…it is our garden…We try to carry that spirit into our schoolroom.”

More than a hundred years after Rogers wrote those words, school gardens have continued to be cherished in the public school system in which she worked. Ventura Unified School District has developed a nationally recognized model that links school gardening, nutrition education and a farm-to-school lunch program featuring locally sourced fruits and vegetables for its 17,000 public school students. The district’s efforts have been boosted by the work of a FoodCorps service member named Chris Massa (more on FoodCorps later in this piece).


Early history of school gardens

School gardens were used in parts of Europe as early as 1811, and mention of their value preceded that by nearly two centuries.

The use and purpose of school gardens was multifold; gardens provided a place where youth could learn natural sciences (including agriculture) and acquire vocational skills.Indeed, the very multiplicity of uses and purposes for gardens made it difficult for gardening proponents to firmly anchor gardening in the educational framework and a school’s curriculum. It still does.

The founder of the kindergarten movement, Friedrich Froebel, used gardens as an educational tool. Froebel was influenced by Swiss educational reformer Johann Pestalozzi, who saw a need for balance in education, a balance that incorporated “hands, heart, and head,” words and ideas that would be incorporated nearly two centuries later into the mission of the United States Department of Agriculture’s 4-H youth development program.

Late 19th century educators such as Maria Montessori and John Dewey built upon educational theories espoused by these earlier philosophers and reformers and extended them. Both Montessori and Dewey spoke specifically about gardening and agricultural education for youth. They both saw the acquisition of practical (i.e., vocational) skills as only part of the value of gardening experiences.


The school garden movement in the United States

“a chain of gardens, as it were, from the Atlantic to the Pacific…”

One of the earliest school garden programs in the United States was developed in 1891, at the George Putnam School in Roxbury, Massachusetts. (Today, the nationally recognized Food Project also teaches youth about gardening and urban agriculture in the Roxbury neighborhood of Boston). The garden at Putnam School was followed in relatively short order by other efforts, including a well-known garden program in New York City: the DeWitt Clinton Farm School.

Interestingly, even home gardens worked by children of the household were considered school gardens; the term “school” took on a broader, Progressive meaning that defined “school” as any setting where youth learned through working. Historian Laura Lawson lists the various names included under the umbrella of the movement: “school gardens, school home gardens, children’s gardens, school farms, farm schools, garden cities, and others.”  Many of these terms are used today.


The movement grows

Gardening became nearly a national craze during the Gilded Age and Progressive Era; “school” gardens enjoyed immense popularity. The USDA estimated that there were more than 75,000 school gardens by 1906. As their popularity soared, advocates busily supplied a body of literature about school gardening and agricultural education. Women – reflecting the traditional location of gardening within the domestic sphere of reform work – wrote many of these pieces. Louise Klein Miller’s Children’s Gardens for School and Home, a Manual of Cooperative Learning appeared in 1904, as the school garden movement was gaining real steam in the United States. Miller’s book described two primary purposes of children’s gardens: civic beautification and nature study, with the goal of instilling a love and appreciation of nature in youth (which would ultimately influence their civic character and “the public good”).

12381vMiller’s book argued that school gardens were not a “new phase of education,” but rather, an “old one” that was gaining merit for its ability to meet a variety of needs.  School gardens were a way to reconnect urbanized American youth with their agrarian, producer heritage, the Jeffersonian idea of the sturdy yeoman farmer. And school gardens could perhaps help “Americanize” immigrant children, as well. Miller argued for the importance of gardening education and nature study for both urban and rural youth, for “sociological and economic” reasons. She stated that one important reason to garden with urban youth was to teach “children to become producers as well as consumers,” and for the possibility “of turning the tide of population toward the country, thus relieving the crowded conditions of the city.” Other reformers echoed this idea, including Jacob Riis, who said:


“The children as well as the grown people were ‘inspired to greater industry and self-dependence.’  They faced about and looked away from the slum toward the country.”

Marie Louise Greene’s Among School Gardens also became a standard book in the literature. Greene’s book provides an interesting glimpse into the developing school garden movement’s Progressive reform purposes. One illustration employs the caption, “Boys should be Formed not Reformed,” to provide information about the National Cash Register Company garden. Greene writes that the “underlying purpose of the teaching is threefold, educational, industrial and social – or moral…”  The founder of the children’s school farm at DeWitt Clinton Park in the Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood of New York was quoted in Greene’s book, saying:


“I did not start a garden to grow a few vegetables and flowers. The garden was used as a means to…teach them in their work some necessary civic virtues, private care of public property, economy, honestly, application, concentration, self-government, civic pride, justice, the dignity of labor, and the love of nature…”

World War I and forward

5424168213_f19b2229db_oThe 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. During World War II, a second Victory Garden program swept the nation, but after that, school garden efforts became the exception, not the norm.

The 1970s environmental movement brought renewed interest to the idea of school and youth gardening and another period of intense growth began in the early 1990s. Interest in farm-to-school has continued to breathe life into the school garden movement, and some states, notably California, developed legislation to encourage school gardens.

We should all take note of the tagline for the U.S. government’s youth gardening program in WWI: “A Garden for Every Child. Every Child in a Garden.”  Wouldn’t this be a great idea today?


Today: FoodCorps

Some of the best models for school garden programs lie in our past. But the real potential of school gardens to reduce obesity, encourage a healthy lifestyle, reconnect youth with the food system and to build healthier, vibrant communities is something we can support today…and is something that should be a national policy priority in the future. And there’s a wonderful program that is doing all of these Hierbas_aromaticasthings: FoodCorps.

FoodCorps is a recently initiated AmeriCorps program that places service member in communities to support school garden and farm-to-school efforts. Though mostly between the ages of 21-26, service members actually span all the way up to their 40s and 50s. There is no upper age limit. Service members are paid a stipend for their service, and the communities in which they work give the service members and the program rave reviews.

The program continues to expand but needs support from each of us. The FoodCorps program was developed by a couple of young activists determined to transform part of the food system: Debra Eschmeyer, a farmer from Ohio and an expert in farm-to-school programs and filmmaker Curt Ellis (“King Corn”). Eschmeyer currently serves as the executive director of the First Lady’s Let’s Move! campaign.

A note to readers: Google Books contains copies of Miller and Greene’s books, as well as numerous other Progressive era books pertaining to gardening and agricultural education. A version of this article originally appeared in Kitchen Gardeners International.

Related Links:

What a World War 1 poster can teach us about food waste

Food system reform is an issue of national security