School gardens serve a vital purpose

School gardens may be small and sometimes not well-tended, but they are important to encourage environmental literacy and overcome 'nature deficit' in kids.

Courtesy of Christopher Weber
A little boy diligently waters his part of a school garden. Although school gardens face many pressures, they're valuable teaching tools for kids.

Among the many resplendent gardens that will soon wake from a long-winter’s nap, the most important are the most humble. I’m speaking of the schoolyard gardens where teachers will bring their students outdoors come Earth Day (April 22 this year) to dig in the dirt, plant flowers, and play with worms.

I would argue that nothing less than the survival of the planet depends on these patches of earth beside the swings.

In a time when “nature deficit disorder” is epidemic (and here’s a quiz you can use to discover whether your kids have it), the straightest path to environmental literacy runs through the school garden.

In many school districts — such Chicago’s, where many of the school buildings date to the 1920s — gardens were not part of the original campuses. Hence, throughout the Windy City and nationwide, indefatigable coalitions of parents, teachers, and environmentalists are working to build school gardens.

In Illinois, plucky organizations such as Openlands are literally prying up concrete in an effort to build a garden at every school in the city. So far, about half have them.

A school garden makes possible all manner of enriching lessons in classes as diverse as biology and genetics, nutrition, geography, and history. (Question: Where do tomatoes come from? Not Italy.) Even math teachers can get in on the fun by helping students calculate yields per acre.

But the most important lessons are probably the simplest.

Last year, I taught a gardening course at a public elementary school. When it came time to discuss soil, I pulled out a bin of worms and asked each child to take one.

You’d have thought I’d asked them to reach their hands into a sack of snakes. Virtually none of them had ever touched a worm. And these weren’t poor kids living in paved-over apartment courts. These were sixth- and seventh-graders from middle- and even upper-class families fortunate to live in one of Chicago’s leafier neighborhoods. These were kids with yards.

Maintenance is a huge problem

Building a school garden is relatively easy compared to keeping it up year after year. Someone has to pick up the incessant litter, organize planting and harvest, and fight pests. (I once taught at a school garden that was home to a major rat infestation.)

Add to these challenges the fundamental problem that most schools are all but abandoned during the prime growing season (otherwise known as “summer vacation”), and you begin to see the difficulties.

The result: Many school gardens fall into neglect a few years after their creation.

There’s one school a few miles from my home that was fortunate enough to have an entire orchard — pear and apple trees as well as grapevines — donated for its courtyard. But in the three years since it was planted, no one has done anything to maintain it. Trees have keeled over. Others are stunted with blight.

There’s an analogy to be drawn here between students’ faltering knowledge of nature and a young, blighted apple tree, but I try not to avoid it. I want to believe that every student can succeed, however deficient his or her education.

Sad as it is, I hardly blame the schools when their gardens fall fallow. Schools are already asked to do too much. Teachers rightly hesitate to take classes out to garden when the very survival of their schools depends on raising test scores. Expecting them to garden, too, on top of all their other duties is like expecting the Titanic’s crew to save the potted palms on that ill-fated ship.

Maybe you can help

Nevertheless, this Earth Day I encourage every citizen to find out whether their local school wants a garden or needs assistance maintaining their garden. Most schools need volunteers anyway, and gardens offer an easy, tangible venue to help.

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Christopher Weber is a journalist and work-at-home dad in Chicago. He has written about gardening for the Chicago Tribune and taught it at a local school. His current favorite vegetable to grow is Brussels sprouts. You can find more information about him, including articles and blogs, at To read more by Christopher at Diggin' It, click here.

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