Spring brings one of the best parts of gardening: choosing and buying seeds. It's a time of excitement and promise, a safe distance away from the hard work of actual gardening. The planting. The weeding. More weeding. Not to mention the disappointment of losing half of your berries or tomatoes or peppers to aggressive squirrels.
It's the same with school gardens, which have become all the rage since first lady Michelle Obama planted an organic garden on the White House lawn four years ago. No one tracks how many schools now have gardens; the U.S. Department of Agriculture is undertaking a survey this year. But at last count there were 82 in the District of Columbia alone.
Imagining a garden and tending to it, though, are two very different things. Teachers, already under intense pressure to perform, often don't have the time or the know-how to plant and maintain a garden, let alone use it in creative ways to teach math, science or art. "That's the aha moment that is happening across the country," says Lauren Shweder Biel, executive director of DC Greens, a nonprofit group that advocates for local food in Washington. "The infrastructure is there now. But teachers are being asked to bring kids out and figure out how to garden, how to make it relevant to the standards they are teaching — and to cure all societal ills at the same time. They are being tasked with more than they are equipped to do."
DC Greens' solution was to build a curriculum and professional network for teachers working in school gardens. The program, called Growing Garden Teachers, offers monthly workshops on topics such as garden design and creating a planting plan that allows teachers to maximize their harvest before school lets out while keeping things going over the summer break. Sarah Bernardi, who directs the program, built the curriculum based on her own experiences trying to teach full time and oversee a school garden at Bancroft Elementary, the D.C. school that was chosen to help Obama plant her garden on the White House lawn.
Growing Garden Teachers instantly filled a need. One hundred twenty teachers applied for 50 spaces in the first free workshop. This year's group of 30 began its year-long training last weekend, with a two-day workshop at a high school that included a tour of seven D.C. gardens. "I look at DC Greens as a national model," says Whitney Cohen, education director for Life Lab, a nonprofit group in Santa Cruz, Calif., that develops school garden curriculums and has worked with DC Greens. "The program has created a consistent professionalism around the garden coordinator position and a level of support that has not been there."
The timing for the Growing Garden Teachers program was fortuitous. In 2010, the D.C. Council passed the Healthy Schools Act, which, among other things, made grants up to $10,000 available to hire official school garden coordinators. (PTAs or other school fundraising efforts help to fill any gaps.) These coordinators are dedicated to planning, planting and maintaining the gardens as well as teaching lessons that make use of the garden. Students learn math by figuring out how many seedlings can fit in a given space and measuring the distance between them. They might also talk about Native American history while working in a "three sisters" garden, a traditional combination of corn, beans and squash.
Each month the garden coordinators meet for lectures on subjects including basic carpentry (for making raised beds and garden signs), composting and practical ways to implement what's known as an environmental literacy plan.
Having one person in charge of the garden has been a blessing, says Jinny Choi, a second-grade teacher at Stoddert Elementary in D.C. After a renovation in 2010, the school, in collaboration with DC Greens, built a 4,000-square-foot garden with eight raised beds, an herb garden, a native plant area, a butterfly-shaped pollinator garden and a shaded teaching area. That first year, Choi tried to help teachers develop lessons for their students and to plant and water and weed. She even came in on weekends to stay on top of the job. "I did my best to get out there and help kids plant," Choi said. "But I wouldn't say the garden was the best it could be."
Choi's experience was typical. "It takes a lot to run an effective school garden program," says Bernardi. "You need to engage the community. You need materials and volunteers. You need to be an advocate within the school and build support among teachers for outdoor learning time in the garden." In the fall of 2011, Stoddert hired a garden coordinator, who is now participating in the Growing Garden Teachers program.
Bethany Hanna, a garden coordinator at two D.C. schools, the Mary McLeod Bethune Day Academy and John Burroughs, participated in the Growing Garden Teachers program last year and has joined again this year. She had always loved food and had kept a garden at her home for six years. But, she says, "I hadn't been teaching to children. I needed to learn how to show them what I know in a language they could understand." The training, she added, is invaluable: "It's like they've given us this toolbox with everything we could need."
The first thing that teachers need is seedlings. DC Greens has hired a gardener to work with environmental science students at Wilson High School, which has a state-of-the-art greenhouse that went largely unused until now. The students are growing 1,200 seedlings, and teachers can request the plants they want and pick them up at various times in the spring, summer and fall.
DC Greens tries to respond to teachers' needs as they arise. Last year, even with the part-time coordinators at schools, the group realized that still more help was needed. Last fall, Bernardi reached out to local colleges to recruit interns. Thirty students responded to the call to work eight to 10 hours per week in the gardens.
"The teachers get energetic support. Students get tangible hands-in-the-dirt experience" and college credits, says Shweder Biel, "so they can be the next generation of school garden coordinators."
"This is what school gardens 2.0 is going to be about," she added. "It's about having someone there to make it all happen."
Black, a former Washington Post Food section staffer based in Brooklyn, writes Smarter Food monthly.