In Defense of School Gardens


Kids-Garden.5.2.08-001-300x225 In a quick e-mail from Ed Bruske, one of our Top GardenRanters of '09, we learned that "The Atlantic magazine serves up a scurrilous attack on school gardens. Could
gardening be the death of learning?"  There's plenty of ranting on Ed's blog, too, despite its mild-mannered title – The Slow Cook. 

Here's Ed's take-down of the Atlantic's "scurrilous attack," and don't miss his telling of the benefits of the school garden he created.  For example:

Some teachers liked to take the students into the garden to write
essays or poems (reading and writing). Others used the planters as
places to paint or mount mosaics (art). In some of the classes, I
volunteered to plant seeds in little pots so the children could watch
them sprout (science). We also started a composting bin so the kids
could learn about micro-organisms and the decomposition process (more
science) and the importance of healthy soil. And of course they learned
about the wondrous process of photosynthesis, how plants turn sunlight
into food (still more science).

These young gardeners are blogging about it, too. 


  1. I read both the Atlantic piece and Bruske’s response. It sounds like the garden in his daughter’s DC school is a wonderful learning supplement for the children. But it sounds like California has jumped onto a silly bandwagon led by Alice Waters, where many schools base their entire curriculum on the garden. As a public school teacher myself, I know I’d resent having to tie all my lessons into the school garden, especially if I were working desperately to teach underprivileged children how to read and write. Sports, drama, music, etc., are also a wonderful part of a child’s education, but I would not appreciate a school basing their entire curriculum around sports, or drama, etc…

  2. I pretty much stop reading at any “Could [x] be the death of [y]?” phrasing. The answer is almost always, “Yes, it could, but it probably isn’t.”

    I picture the Microsoft paperclip popping up to say, “The author appears to be trying to get you highly emotional over a hypothetical situation for which s/he has no proof. Do you want to remain calm? [yes] [no] [help]”

  3. Good point, Mr. subjunctive, but you should read the Atlantic article. The only place that the words “could gardening be the death of learning?” appear is on the GardenRant site.

  4. I once met a teacher who proudly told me about her school’s native plant project. She was taking the children to the nearby woods to dig up wildflowers to bring to the school garden beds. What could I say?
    It seems many good ideas are soured when desire trumps reality. Not only was the teacher ignorant, she was passing along dangerous behavior to the children.
    The best thing I have seen in a school so far was a door that led outside from each classroom. Gardens in schools can be good. The most important thing, however, is having contact with nature in any form.
    This makes me think of the thousands of wanna-be-farmers who are reading about easy-to-grow, bountiful vertical gardens, edible roofs and herbs on the indoor window sill. Dream on.
    Unfortunately, the truth is not always sexy.

  5. Dear Commenter Mary,

    From reading the Atlantic piece I can see how you would get the impression that “California schools are trying to base their entire curriculum on the garden”. But let me tell you, as someone who works with California Unified School Districts to implement school gardens, that is not the case and in fact, it would be completely impossible to do so! Teachers cannot teach everything outside in the garden and they are not asked to.

    What these school gardens are doing (something which is not even mentioned in Atlantic piece) is drawing students away from their TV and video game mentality and getting them excited about learning. The garden is merely a tool. It is a tool used to reinforce some of the “book learning”. But it is in no way, used to teach all the lessons of the day through gardening. That would be impossible.

    Many of these students cannot “get” the lessons in the classroom, but when it is reinforced in a real life setting, they not only understand it, they retain it.

    And the students are not just “measuring the garden” for math. They are doing (gasp) much more extensive math calculations in the garden. And students are not writing recipes instead of essays. Those allegations are crazy! At least they are in the gardens I have experienced.

    And an added benefit (again not mentioned in the Atlantic piece) is that students are learning to appreciate nature and become better stewards of the earth in a much better way than reading about nature in a book.

    Perhaps, the author of that article should read “The Last Child of the Woods” about nature deficit disorder.

    The entire time I read that Atlantic piece, I keep wondering where this lady was coming from. Did she have a bad experience with a school garden? Is she jealous of something? What is her real beef? Because honestly, she is so far off base…it is scary.

  6. Mary:

    Aha. Fair enough.

    I read the Bruske takedown, which was lovely, but could only make it through about half of the first page of the Atlantic article. I have my limits. Or maybe they’re standards. Whatever they are, I have them, and they preclude me reading stuff like that.

  7. Caitlin Flanagan frequently writes for The Atlantic essays speaking to topics about which she knows nothing. Often, these pieces are about the “hot topic of the moment”–moments ago.

    I can’t say I’m surprised that she tackled this topic, six months after everyone else had moved on.

    I’m also not at all surprised that she got nothing right.

    I like reading The Atlantic: I’ve read it since I was 18, and a freshman in college. I wish they’d find a new columnist for “woman issues,” though.

  8. I read that article yesterday, with a sense of horror that The Atlantic would let anything like that pass for journalism. No hard information that I could see, and a lot of Faux-news like whipping-up of isms, like racism.

    I also read a very good article rebutting Flanagan, but I’m damned if I can find it or remember the author’s name. Blame it on the cold, grey weather.

    Perhaps those privileged divas like Flanagan oughta spend a week or so without their Blackberries and Blahniks in a place where they have to grow their own food because there’s no way to get it in to them. She’d find then that knowing a few gardening skills would come in handy. But of course she would have someone else do the dirty work for her.

    How long til she comes out with a book where she claims to be an expert on how gardening is keeping us all repressed?

  9. I am a big fan of school gardens. Do I want time taken away from reading and math? HECK NO! But the school gardens do make a practical lab when teaching kids about biology: photosynthesis, how roots work, bark/cambium layer/plant vascular systems, chemistry – through soil manipulation, pollination, insects, plant dormancy, seeds, parts of a flower, science stuff! It can be incorporated into the learning program.

    There is also other long term aspects, such as an appreciation for the economics of food. Imagine a child who grows a row of carrots. They see a huge pile of carrots at the store for sale. They might be inspired to entrepreneurialism. Also, people who have produced something have grasped the concrete of manufacturing.

    I won’t say that growing some lettuce in a school garden will save the world or turn this country from service/government back to a predominantly manufacturing economy, but it may teach kids that things just don’t magically appear. They must create, manufacture or grow something themselves, that it doesn’t just suddenly appear when clicking a button on

  10. I eagerly printed out the Atlantic article and settled down with another cup of coffee to read it. About 1/4 into it, I said out loud to my husband, “why am I reading this? It’s so idiotic.” His reply: “maybe you read crap like that because it makes you feel superior.” Hmmmm, thought I. Yes, reading this kind of idiotic nonsense DOES make me feel superior. Oh hell. Another thing to worry about. Do I want to give up feeling superior? Don’t know. Must ponder that.

  11. The only reason Ms.Flanagan was able to sit on her ass and pen such a contemptuous essay was because of the very success of the skill set and science she finds has no worth while value. Apparently the bedrock of civilization is beneath her intellectual skills.

  12. How about school gardens in the wealthier school districts of suburbia where there are no vegetable gardens allowed because of HOA’s. These kids would have no idea where food comes from.

  13. I read the entire Atlantic article.
    I came away with the sense that the writer has a very myopic view on education and is full of contempt for Alice Waters .
    She views that reading , writing and Algebra I are the only necessary pedagoics a child should be taught during their school day and the arts and sports are something that should be dabbled in after the school day is over.
    Talk about a vacuous point of view.
    Whew, what a sad sack of single mindedness she is.

  14. Here in Minnesota, our Master Gardener youth education group just spent the past year developing a gardening curriculum that teaches and reaches the state science standards. Their presentations are meant as an enrichment to the classroom lesson. Sounds really radical, huh?
    Could this be a reaction to a certain garden at the White House as well?

  15. As an Early Childhood teacher, I have total belief in an education garden. In the school I teach at, we call it a literacy garden because it can cover all areas of a person’s life.

    I don’t even want to go into all of the lessons a garden can teach a child, go to school and find out!

  16. If you think this article raised a ruckus, just google around and read some of the commentary on Flanagan’s last book.

    Her argument in this article hinges on the fact that she couldn’t find any studies that show garden programs improve standardized test scores in California. That doesn’t mean they don’t. And there is a lot of research showing benefits for school garden programs, though maybe not specifically the ones Flanagan thinks are so important.

    My pet peeve with the article (beyond some flagrant examples of faulty logic and poor math) revolve around the premise that an hour and a half of gardening for some sixth graders is what’s dragging down the California public schools.

    Maybe The Atlantic’s editors were having a bad day when they let this piece through.

  17. I have to agree that an entire program can’t be based on the garden. I think it could be good for science classes, and maybe even art and some physical activity if the children can get out and plant, weed and harvest. We did a science project when I was in school on plants and we grew some in a dark closet while we gave some milk instead of water and others were given water and left on a windowsill. It was fun, it got us all interested, and we learned in the process. That was really a long time ago for me so I can’t remember the outcome now, but I do remember doing the project as a class and having to keep notes on it as we went. Not the same as a garden, I know.

  18. Teaching children how to care for plants is, in my opinion, a critical part of a “good education.” I don’t expect everyone to grow up to be farmers or even gardeners…but I do believe that possessing a basic appreciation and understanding through hands on experience provides a much needed foundation for the choices and decisions those children will make as they grow into adults. For example, what to allow into their grocery cart, or garden soil or lawns. Or where and from whom to buy their food.

    Children become more responsible citizens when they are taught the important, basic lessons about the fundamentals of life–and without plants there is no life!–and not a whole lot of beauty or refuge.

  19. It’s not so much the attack on the school garden that gets me, as the notion that forcing children to sit behind desks for ever increasing amounts of time and drenching them in nothing but math and reading is somehow conducive to learning and a good education. It’s really sad when education is geared toward gaining higher standardized test scores rather than the acquisition of knowledge and critical thinking skills.

  20. What’s wrong with getting kids outside to breathe the fresh air? An outdoor classroom is so much more than just growing food – she really doesn’t say much at all about the interdisciplinary approach. The idea that school gardening programs disappoint immigrant parents is laughable. Our principal credits our school gardening program to the absence of gender and racial gaps in science test scores and we have hard numbers to back that up and put on our college applications.

  21. Ms Flanagan is nuts. Poorly informed, too. I’d bet she’s never actually visited a school garden, much less watched any teacher with students in one. File her under “crackpot”.

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