Teaching Gardens Help Expand the Landscape of Learning

PTOs and PTAs around the country are helping schools take their learning experiences outdoors, where kids get lessons they can use in and out of the classroom.

by Rebecca A. Hill


Sally Burns grew up on a farm where they harvested and canned all their vegetables for the winter. So getting her hands dirty, watching plants bloom, and eating the results were experiences that she wanted to share with her own kids and others. It makes sense, then, that during her term as PTA president at Oak Hill Elementary near Fairfax, Va., Burns helped grow 800-plus gardeners with a teaching garden, sharing her experiences and teaching students the value and origins of the food they eat.

What Are Teaching Gardens?

Many schools today look for opportunities for kids to get out and learn through hands-on experiences. Teaching gardens uniquely fill this need because they not only provide hands-on learning in an outdoor setting but also offer a variety of other corresponding lessons like composting, gauging weather, plotting and graphing, and nutrition that span the entire curriculum. Throughout the United States, schools have partnered with national organizations like the American Heart Association, Real School Gardens, and the National Gardening Association to bring the same experiences that the Oak Hill Elementary teaching garden shares with its students. But the real benefit of teaching gardens is not just getting kids outside in the dirt—it is teaching them the value of food, where it comes from, and who grows it.

A Teaching Garden as a Long-Term Project

By building a teaching garden, schools must remember that a garden requires ongoing learning, says Judith Collier-Reid, a consultant for the American Heart Association’s Teaching Gardens program. “It may not always turn out perfect the first time,” Collier-Reid says, “but that doesn’t mean that you stop trying. We have seen every extreme of gardens—those that look like they should be on the cover of [Better Homes and Gardens] to those that need lots of TLC—but that’s what it means to have a garden.”

So creating a teaching garden at school is, first and foremost, a long-term project. It requires planning, money, volunteers, community involvement, and ongoing maintenance through all kinds of weather. Teachers and school administrators must buy into the garden concept, and this means that gardening has to be part of classroom lessons. Plus there are a variety of issues to decide before moving ahead: what to do with the harvested produce, how often kids will be in the garden, whether to use plants or seeds, how much daily volunteer time is needed, and what to do with the garden in times of bad or extreme weather.

Involving Parents in a Teaching Garden

Critical to a garden’s long-term success is a strong committee to lead the effort to create and maintain it. The AHA’s program requires a committee composed of parents, teachers, and volunteers. Real School Gardens does not require a parent committee, though it heavily relies on parent involvement to move learning gardens forward and keep them flourishing, says executive director Jeanne McCarty. “We look for schools with a strong parent organization because we know if parents are involved, they will keep the garden growing,” she says.

In schools with teaching gardens, parent involvement comes in a variety of ways. Some schools have organized parent groups like a PTA or PTO leading the project. At other schools, staff or volunteers have initiated gardens. But in most cases, having some sort of organized parent group goes a long way to make a garden successful.

At Moss Haven Elementary in Dallas, the PTA, led by Debbie Bono and Tiffany Walker, partnered with the AHA. They created a committee to lead the teaching garden project, wrote grants for funding, and identified community resources that would push the project forward. Initially, Moss Haven’s PTA funded its garden with a grant of $2,000, using parent suggestions for how to spend funds for the school year.

Several moms and the lead teacher farmer got the garden going by creating the Garden Gals, a group of volunteers who developed a long-term business plan for the outdoor garden, Walker says. “We met as needed to address school district hurdles, funding needs, best practices, and research and shopping lists,” she says. “It is pretty amazing what a small group of seven passionate parents can accomplish when the ideas are flowing and the boundaries are limitless.” Debbie Bono agrees, saying that the garden never would have happened without the PTA’s support.

Incorporating a Teaching Garden Into Classroom Learning

The more teachers can incorporate school gardens into the curriculum, the more students will get out of them. The American Heart Association, Real School Gardens, and the National Garden Association supply curricula or lesson plans as part of their partnerships with schools. Real School Gardens provides three years of on-site teacher training so teachers across the campus can use the program for academic achievement. The organization takes a three-pronged approach, McCarty says. “The training consists of meeting with all teachers, providing onsite training in the learning garden, then demonstration teaching on the curriculum. Our certified educators model teaching with the goal of having students retain what they learn so they perform better in the classroom,” she explains. “We want teachers when they are planning their lessons to think about the learning garden just as they would any other teaching tool available to them.”

Even with these plans, some schools create their own lessons. At Oak Hill Elementary, the math curriculum integrated the idea of square-foot gardening: Two students are assigned a square foot, and must plot and graph their garden as part of math learning, says Sally Burns.

At Rosa Parks-Edison Elementary in Indianapolis, students plant native plants in their gardens that then provide information for state lesson plans. At Fayetteville (Ark.) High School, plant science students planted raised vegetable garden beds, utilized a rain barrel and gauge, and used an outdoor thermometer and time-lapse camera for learning about the growing process. At Moss Haven, English students write about their garden’s progress in their farm journals.

Volunteer and Community Involvement and Teaching Gardens

Finally, no teaching garden is complete without a significant number of volunteers and community partnerships. So reaching out to the community is an important way schools can build their gardens with grants or donations from local businesses and donated services like bulldozers or carpentry. Community and parent volunteers can also help maintain the garden over the summer months. Oak Hill has garden docents for each classroom—parent volunteers who work in the gardens, read to students about gardens, and contribute to garden projects. Some schools, like Moss Haven, recruited local businesses to help with soil, composting, and tree services while their local Boy Scout and Girl Scout troops helped with planting. At Rosa Parks-Edison Elementary, a local greenhouse donated all the plants for the garden beds and Boy Scouts helped haul wood and other supplies for the garden.

Several schools drew upon the knowledge of local master gardeners, experts who have had, on average, 50 hours of coursework and volunteer work toward their certification. These kinds of community supports are necessary to continue a teaching garden for the long haul, Collier-Reid says. “It is important to get all kinds of community groups who have an interest in this type of program involved,” she says. “It can’t be just limited to the science teacher. The more we get the community involved, the more the garden will grow and sustain itself.”

The opportunities with a teaching garden are endless as they enlarge a school landscape for more learning as well as keep a school in touch with parents, students, and community volunteers. Most important, a teaching garden reminds us that while the classroom is found inside, it can also be found outside with the sun, rain, plants, and dirt on our hands.

Resources for Starting a Teaching Garden

American Heart Association Teaching Gardens
7272 Greenville Ave., Dallas, TX 75231

Mission: To build healthier lives, free of cardiovascular diseases and strokes.
The school must be a Title I school and located in a “vegetable desert,” i.e. an area that does not have ready access to fresh local produce. The school must commit to the program for two school years and establish a committee of students and adults to manage the garden. The AHA provides materials for planting day, garden beds, organic soil, seedlings, and plants along with lesson plans. Currently, there are 206 teaching gardens in 29 states.

National Gardening Association Kids Gardening
1100 Dorset St., South Burlington, VT 05403

Mission: To promote home, school, and community gardening as a means to renew and sustain the essential connections between people, plants, and the environment.
Each applicant is asked to create a garden registry profile for their program. The profile can be displayed publicly or privately depending on your organization’s preferences. Applications will be evaluated based on a combination of information from the garden registry profile and application questions. The profile provides the grant committee with basic insights into your garden program. These details are saved in their database and can be applied to multiple grant applications.

Real School Gardens   
1700 University Drive #260, Fort Worth, TX 76107

Mission: Real School Gardens directly partners with high-poverty elementary schools to create learning gardens that become an integral part of their teaching culture and community and grow successful students. Real School Gardens supports the design and installation of school gardens, train teachers to use them to improve children’s learning, and build community around them to nurture support for urban schools.
Requirements: Applicants must be 501(c)(3) nonprofit elementary schools that are developing or currently maintaining a school garden project that will help children engage with academics, in particular science, math, and language arts. Garden projects may be at any stage of development: planning, construction, or operation. Priority will be given to both limited-resource communities and to projects that demonstrate strong buy-in from stakeholders. Since 2003, Real School Gardens has been coordinating closely with urban school districts and communities to design and install sustainable school gardens that raise hope, spark imaginations, and connect children to nature. Presently, they have 92 schools in Texas.

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