Transcript of video presentation by Constance
School gardens are once again a hot topic in the news and on the
bookshelf. Growing concern for the health and well-being of our
nation's youth and increased emphasis on the environment have spawned
a renewed interest in the value of providing students with the
opportunity to plan and care for a garden as part of their school
curriculum. Healthcare professionals see school gardens as a way
to counteract obesity, diabetes, and the harmful effects of fast
food; environmentalists feel they provide a method for encouraging
sustainability, diversity, and conservation; and educators value
them as a means of fostering hands-on learning, teamwork, motivation,
responsibility, personal growth, and creativity.
School gardens are actually a 19th century concept. The hard labor
involved appealed to the Puritan work ethic of the 1800s. Some
advocates promoted school gardens in this country by citing Europe's
success in using them to advance its agricultural methods. But
it was primarily the 19th century views on the benefits of fresh
air, physical exertion, and character building, as well as the
basic educational aspects of nature study that ignited the school
garden movement here in America. Honesty, accountability, thrift,
appreciation for public property, cooperation, a sense of pride,
and self-respect were hallmarks of the garden experience.
In 1902, Dick Crosby of the U.S. Department of Agriculture observed, "Teachers
who have had experience with school gardens are almost unanimous
in testifying to the good influence of the well-kept garden. Children
develop a feeling for the beautiful; they become neater in their
habits, less troublesome, kindlier; they take pride in keeping
the schoolyard neat. And the influence extends beyond the school
grounds to the homes. Children start home gardens, begin to adorn
backyards, porches, and windows; the parents become interested,
and the influence goes on and on."
In 1904, Mrs. Fannie G. Parsons, a pioneer of school gardens in
the United States, noted in a Report of the First Children's School
Farm in New York City, "City children are enclosed amid bricks,
stone, concrete, trolleys, trucks, and automobiles; and are therefore
'alienated' from their human birthright of trees, fields, and flowers. " Through
her gardening program at New York's De Witt Clinton School Farm,
Mrs. Parsons sought to save these city children.
By 1910, the School Garden Association of America, civic and women's
clubs, horticultural groups, and educational organizations joined
the ranks of those promoting and supporting the school garden movement.
In 1914, the Federal government realized the educational potential
of school gardens and created the Office of School and Home Gardening
within the U.S. Bureau of Education. School gardens became a nationwide
movement and by 1918 every state in America had at least one school
To help schools develop their gardening curriculum, the U.S. Department
of Agriculture provided the Office of School and Home Gardening
with seeds, expertise, course guides, articles, and planting schemes.
It also issued "how-to" pamphlets that enumerated what and when
to plant, as well as the best ways to plow, fertilize, seed, mulch,
and weed. These materials are well represented in the collections
of the Library of Congress along with a plethora of journal articles,
personal accounts, progress reports, illustrations, photographs,
and posters. They give us insight into the hearts and minds of
educators and students of the time.
As they worked in the garden, students learned that they could
benefit or hurt the growth of living plants and organisms. In the
New England Magazine of June 1902, Henry Clapp, Master of the George
Putnam School in Boston, Massachusetts recalled, "The children
not knowing how carefully young plants must be treated to live
and thrive...were told plants resembled babies and could no more...be
pulled out of their warm beds, deprived of their supply of food,
or exposed to the hot sun, without harm...When the children saw
their plants wilt, grow pale and sickly and actually disappear
from the beds, they had an object lesson worth hours of lecture."
Educators expounded on the ways in which mathematics, language
arts, geography, entomology, botany, landscaping, drawing, music,
manual training, physical education, home economics, and nutrition
could be incorporated into the school garden curriculum by linking
them to garden tasks. For instance, in mathematics, students figured
the size of garden plots; calculated the distance between rows
for optimal plant growth; determined the number of seeds required;
measured the depth of the soil for each seed type; computed the
cost of seed, fertilizer, and garden implements; and calculated
margins of profit and loss.
By reading garden poems, stories, seed journals, field guides,
and cookbooks, students satisfied the verbal and reading requirements
of language arts. They honed writing skills by keeping planting
journals, diaries, and lab notebooks; spelling insect and plant
names; printing plant labels; and corresponding with seed and tool
companies. In her article, "School Gardens in Their Relations to
the Three R's" published in May 1905, Miss Persis K. Miller noted, "The
necessary business correspondence, brief though it may seem, is
more in quantity than the average language book provides for, and
it has what a mere textbook cannot furnish; namely, the necessity
of expressing oneself with clearness, because a real thing is coming
in answer to this letter. But the greatest difference is noticed
in the attitude of the children themselves in the interest and
earnest effort that they put into these letters which are going
to a real somewhere to secure a real something."
Students also composed articles for school newspapers and wrote
compositions about various aspects of the school garden. Miss Miller
recounted, "More subjects for compositions were here than could
be used. Were descriptive articles desired, the children were ready
to describe any plant in their gardens, or insect and bird visitor,
and couldn't possibly say half they wanted to in the time given
In some school districts, children submitted their compositions
in competitions. A winning essay entitled, "The Life of a Japanese
Radish", was written by a 6th grader named Paul Roberts and was
reprinted in a 1912 Bulletin of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's
Experiment Station. Written from the viewpoint of a radish, the
composition showed imagination and considerable research effort
on the part of its author. Here is an excerpt from the composition: "After
I had been buried about three days, I peeped out of the ground.
I was given water every day, and within two weeks my leaves were
3 inches in length...my body is between a white and a pale yellow...I
ought to weigh about 15 pounds. Some of my family reach the remarkable
weight of 40 pounds... Paul is very much interested in me, and
has taken good care of me and will take me out of the ground when
Jack Frost comes again."
Geographic principles were learned in the garden as students researched
the origin of fruits and vegetables, observed the effect of climate
and soil on the growth and development of plants, noticed methods
of seed dispersal, and studied American cultural history and variations
in planting customs. For example, a Native American custom called "three
sisters" involved planting corn, beans and squash together. Beans
fixed nitrogen in the soil to help the corn grow, the cornstalks
provided support for the bean plants, and the squash covered the
ground like mulch while its prickly vines kept animals away.
Students received valuable lessons in botany and entomology by
learning the names, anatomy, and life cycles of garden plants and
insects; detecting the role of earthworms in soil aeration; watching
seed germination; observing pollination by bees and other insects;
determining which insects ate which plants; and learning to recognize
garden weeds. In his 1902 article in the New England Magazine,
Henry Clapp recalled, "The development of the young plants, each
species in its own peculiar manner, excited the curiosity of the
children...many singular phenomena of plant growth like, for instance,
the bean's habit of coming out of the ground with the skin of the
bean perched on the leaf; or the marked difference between the
seed leaves and the first pair of ordinary leaves interested them
and sharpened their powers of observation."
Students were introduced to landscaping fundamentals as they planned
the school garden and made aesthetic and functional paths leading
up to and around the school grounds and plants. Colorful vegetables
and flowers beautifully transformed the schoolyards. In her article
entitled "School Gardens in Great Cities" in the April 1904 American
Monthly Review of Reviews, Helen Christine Bennett described the
making of the first children's school garden in New York City, "Facing
the Hudson, on the west side of New York City, is a piece of condemned
land awaiting improvement. The most vivid imagination could not
have conceived a more desolate spot than this was in the summer
of 1902...Rows of tumble-down houses...piles of rubbish, stones,
rags, and litter. In the center of this plot of ground, it was
evident that something of more than ordinary importance was occurring...the
children's ready minds, assisted by those of older brothers and
sisters, and by workmen from the Park Department of Manhattan,
accomplished wonders. Stones and rubbish vanished. The hard earth
yielded to the plow and harrow. Load after load of rich loam was
brought...Walks were laid out and plots marked...Children...planted
the seeds given to them...soon in that desert waste rose an oasis
of living green, orderly, neat, and picturesque."
In 1905, Mrs. Keach, a supervisor of drawing at the Critic School
in Baltimore, Maryland remarked, "Children paint and draw so much
better the things they have had some care of." In the school garden,
students learned to draw and paint by sketching seeds and plants,
designing garden signs and markers, mapping garden plots to scale,
and creating watercolors of vegetables, flowers, birds, and insects.
Students received training in music by writing and singing garden
Lessons in manual training included cutting plant stakes, and
constructing raised beds, cold frames, row markers, and benches.
Physical education departments recognized the value of tilling,
hauling, digging, planting, and weeding for building and maintaining
physical stamina. Henry Clapp noted, "No system of indoor gymnastics
could have done so much for the health and strength and enthusiastic
pleasure of the children in so short a time as did the work. The
boys had ample opportunity to show their skill, strength, and helpfulness,
and even the girls, after a two hours' tussle with refractory sods,
seemed in no way weary or discouraged."
Students gained practical experience in home economics by cooking,
canning, and preserving the fruits and vegetables they harvested.
As they prepared the food they grew, students had an opportunity
to add healthier foods to their diets and to learn the principles
of better nutrition.
The First World War gave a boost to the School Garden Movement.
School gardens flourished as an integral part of the war effort
and provided an important source of local food. Adopting the motto, "A
garden for every child, every child in a garden," the United States
School Garden Army was organized and consisted of boys and girls,
ages 9 through 15. Each participant pledged to "consecrate my head,
heart, hands and health through food production and food conservation
to help in the World War and world peace." The logo consisted of
Uncle Sam as the Pied Piper being followed by children carrying
a hoe, rake, shovel, and trowel, and by a smaller child sowing
seed. The logo graced the covers of the School Garden Army's many
instruction manuals and guides on preparing the soil, sowing seed,
caring for plants, and harvesting crops.
In 1879, Erasmus Schwab noted, "School gardens are a fountain
for the knowledge of nature and its consequent pleasure, and an
excellent means of training." Today, the school garden is once
again becoming a vehicle for teaching students about the wonder
of nature and the diversity of living things. It also is used to
foster self-esteem, responsibility, appreciation for the environment,
and better nutrition and health. In the past decade, there has
been an eightfold increase in teacher requests for school garden
materials and it is estimated that about one-fourth of public and
private schools in the United States now have gardens."
The Library of Congress has a wealth of materials on school gardens.
We encourage you to explore the ways in which these gardens have
enriched the lives of students, transformed entire communities,
and contributed to the well being of our nation.