Organic Gardening’s Going to School

organic_gardeningby guest blogger Ethne Clarke, editor-in-chief, Organic Gardening

Within the past few weeks, did something even more amazing that usual. We posted “Dig, Plant, Grow!” a curriculum designed to assist teachers who wish to make an edible garden for their schools. School gardens are an asset that should be part of every learning system, and in the past they often were. But like school orchestras and outdoor recess, they felt the cut of the budget knife—or were spurned by the altered expectations of educationalists (formerly known as teachers.)

But everything is cyclical, and I recently read that our local urban secondary school is supporting El Sistema to bring music back into its curriculum. This program uses music education as a catalyst for social change, believing it can, “dramatically change the life trajectory of hundreds of thousands of a nation’s neediest kids.” And PBS just ran a program about how school principals are commissioning the nonprofit Playworks to bring recess and games back to the school day. It turns out that if you let kids blow off some pent-up energy (and anyone who’s sat at a desk for seven hours a day at age 10 will know what that feels like—it used to be called “ants in the pants”), it can boost their concentration and academic performance. In short, music and playtime are good for young minds.

Which brings me to gardening. A few years ago it was reported that in healthy, organically managed soil there exists a soilborne bacteria, Mycobacterium vaccae, that triggers the release of mood-enhancing, anxiety-decreasing serotonin. Add to that the fact that most digging in the soil is done in the open air on sunny days, and you have a recipe for good health. In Organic Gardening‘s terms, the equation is: healthy soil = healthy people = healthy planet.

So it was with great happiness that, in 2010, I began working with teacher Meredith Hill and her seventh-grade English class from the Columbia Secondary School for Math, Science, & Engineering to help them learn about organic practice, composting, seed sowing, and growing. The kids were researching the topic as part of an English lit program focused on food and sustainability; they wrote their reports, and with guidance from OG‘s editorial team, produced a magazine, FRESH! YOUNG VOICES ON FOOD AND SUSTAINABILITY.

You can read the articles that we produced with Meredith about the class experience, and what she learned herself and how it benefited her teaching agenda, at the following:

 It’s been a rich experience for all concerned, but most profound was coming to the understanding that school gardens serve a purpose beyond getting children’s hands in the dirt and connected to the good food they can and should eat. A school garden is a teaching asset that offers numerous lessons in a myriad of subjects. And that’s the garden’s value to teachers. Because without good teachable content, a school garden is just a warm, fuzzy feeling, and its care and maintenance just one more job on a teacher’s already-heavily-burdened agenda.

Another consideration that some regard as a stumbling block: What happens to the garden when school is out for the year? Obvious answer: The garden can be left to run to seed, which in effect means it is prepared for the next class to ready it for clearing, digging, composting, sowing, and cropping. Or it can become a honey pot, drawing kids and their families to it over the course of the summer break—a destination that offers the shared pleasures of food, of connecting with the earth and each other through teamwork, and of mutual nurturing, for as the seasons turn and the garden rejuvenates, it becomes a focus of hope and happiness—and promise—for future generations.

plant-dig-grow1To download a free copy of the Organic Gardening edible school garden curriculum, visit We hope that these ideas will bring an understanding of gardening and food systems to young people who can in turn build a sustainable future “from the ground up.”

Ethne Clarke 2014

Ethne Clarke is editor-in-chief of Organic Gardening, the leading magazine resource for an organic approach to home, food and garden. Charged in 2009 with the revitalization of the cornerstone publication of the 72-year-old Rodale publishing company, Clarke led a highly successful redesign and editorial repositioning of the brand that every year since has accrued important industry awards, including the prestigious “Best Magazine Redesign” in 2010 from MIN and most recently a Folio Eddie award. Originally from the Midwest, Clarke lived in England for 30 years and trained there as a professional gardener; she is popular internationally as a speaker on gardening subjects, and the author of some 20 books on landscape history, design and practical gardening, including Infinity of Graces: Cecil Pinsent, an English Architect in the Italian Landscape; Hidcote: The Making of a Garden; Herb Garden Design; Art of the Kitchen Garden; and English Cottage Gardens, all of which have been published in the United States and Great Britain.


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2 Responses to Organic Gardening’s Going to School

  1. Susan February 13, 2014 at 9:35 am #

    Excellent informative article, thank you for supporting school gardens!

  2. Trinity February 19, 2014 at 12:01 pm #

    Awesome! We are implementing the Farm to School program within our school district! Thanks for the helpful info and boost of support!

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