Cultivating Communities through School Gardens

Reader Contribution by Meg Hiesinger and The Ecology Center
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“What are the ingredients for a healthy life?” I ask this question to young children, college students, women’s groups and other audiences I address. I first assumed that people’s expectations would be physical needs like food and shelter.

Instead, I learned that primary concerns are things like: friends, family, laughter, and spiritual support.The place where I got to know this most vividly is in my work leading Grow Your Own!, The Ecology Center’s school garden support program.

Grow Your Own!

Grow Your Own! was born in 2012 to address a problem: Local teachers and parents were building school gardens that were lying empty from disuse. The mission of GYO! thus became support for school gardens and their leaders through guidance, curriculum, and resources to foster gardens that were at the same time beautiful, educational, and functional.

This grassroots movement has evolved beyond every expectation thanks to hearing local leaders’ needs, and has grown from 3 schools in 2012 to 20 schools in 2014, reaching over 12,000 individuals. Based on a mentorship model, our staff regularly visits each school, offering help and know-how with anything from planning a garden space to teaching a cooking class.

We partner with local high schools to offer a Garden Mentor program where older students teach gardening to younger ones. This year we launched a new website to more widely distribute our lessons and resources.

The past three years have shown what makes or breaks a school garden program, and that is people. It’s easy enough to build a garden and inspire kids through visits. The challenge for adults lies in building a network of teachers, parents, and administrators who feel connected enough to tend the plants, use the space, and do the small recurring tasks of maintenance.

We all face unprecedented demands on our time but the same time, people of all ages seem hungry to connect to causes or to a community that feels deeply real and authentic. The opportunities are right here in front of us.

The Benefits of a Garden

Many of us are familiar with the old African saying, “It takes a village to raise a child.” Where is the village in our modern lives? Portland architect, community designer and TED speaker, Mark Lakeman shares my belief that part of the answer lies in the school garden:

“School gardens are certainly the most accessible places for anyone’s re-introduction to the broadest possible spectrum of ideas and issues that affect humanity and the natural world…School gardens are literally a multi-functional form of commons, and in this way they naturally are a context for the reintegration of parts and pieces of our lives that must add up to a greater whole if we are to survive and thrive. This is the common ground that inspires people to use their bodies again, to come home in the deepest sense, and restore our most essential connection to the ground we stand upon…”

Because children spend up to 10 hours of their days in schools, the school garden can provide the most immediate, even singular, ecosystem that they will connect to in their childhood. Although kids’ time outdoors and access to open space is diminishing, experts are finding that green environments are essential to human health.[1]

The complex environment of a garden provides opportunities for a wide range of learning fields, from nourishing our bodies through food growing, acquiring empathy through interaction with wildlife, learning pattern recognition through weather and elements, and developing social skills through collaborative work.

At this time, educators see that workplaces are changing, and the kinds of skills required for good jobs or even survival seem to be evolving faster than we can grasp. New curriculum and initiatives like Common Core and Project-Based Learning (PBL) focus on building holistic intelligence and capacity in children through open investigation and problem solving. These are similar to techniques that traditional cultures have been using to educate children for thousands of years.

A growing body of research is proving scientifically what our ancestors knew through practice- that outdoor spaces like school gardens hold essential developmental micronutrients not easily obtained indoors. School gardens can help reduce obesity and provide exercise.[2]

On the nutrition front, hands-on gardening seems to improve students’ eating habits and fruit and vegetable consumption better than classroom education alone.[3] Research also shows that time spent outdoors by children is central to the development of creativity, social and emotional skills, and an ecological mindset in adults.[4]

Gardens and Healthy Community

The benefits of school gardens extend beyond our children. Meaningful work is an essential ingredient of adult health and is abundant in the garden. Warren Brush, founder of the education center Quail Springs Permaculture, for instance cautions us never to eliminate the physical hand-work of weeding, fixing bikes, weaving baskets, etc. regardless of how high we progress in our career ladders. In his experience, these types of repetitive bodily work create the time and space to engage in the important conversations for which many of us today feel we have so little time.

The garden at Huntington Beach High School is a model of a school garden functioning as a community hub. In teacher Greg Goran’s class, teens earn income and gain social experience by raising vegetables and fish through aquaponics. The garden supplies organic produce to nearby restaurants, enriching the local economy and food web. Students share their expertise by hosting monthly tours for other schools and community groups.

It’s easy to explain the importance of eating locally-grown food. But as lead of The Ecology Center’s Grow Your Own! program, I am eager to show that ecologically it can be just as important to host a potluck or help a teacher lead a class in the garden. These small daily acts are the base of creating community — what I believe is the golden survival skill of this century. Whether by growing meals, saving seeds or harvesting rainwater, the garden is where we can learn to work together again.

We are not just designing a garden, we are designing a culture. When people come to our school gardens, I want them to envision a new way to live.


[1] Kuo, F. E. (2010). Parks and other green environments: essential components of a healthy human habitat: National Recreation and Park Association.

[2] Kimbro, R. T., Brooks-Gunn, J., & McLanahan, S. (2011). Young Children in Urban Areas: Links Among Neighborhood Characteristics, Weight Status, Outdoor Play, and Television-Watching. Social Science & Medicine.

[3] McAleese, J. D., & Rankin, L. L. (2007). Garden-based nutrition education affects fruit and vegetable consumption in sixth-grade adolescents. Journal of the American Dietetic Association, 107, 662-665.

[4] Burdette, H. L., & Whitaker, R. C. (2005). Resurrecting free play in young children – Looking beyond fitness and fatness to attention, affiliation, and affect. Archives Of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine, 159(1), 46-50.As we experiment with cultivating a greater agrarian connection, it’s time for us to revisit the age-old wisdom of the root cellar. Traditionally, root cellars were underground structures used to store vegetables, fruits, and other foods. Because the earth’s mean temperature hovers around 60 degrees, a root cellar serves as the perfect natural refrigerator

Photos by Scott Sporleder

Grow Your Own! is made possible by the generous contribution of the Chipotle Cultivate Foundation.

Meg Hiesinger works with community leaders and students of all ages to create meaningful hands-on experiences in ecological and cultural sustainability and currently oversees Grow Your Own! and other educational programs at The Ecology Center.

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