Getting serious about school gardens

By Kris Berggren

School gardens from St. Paul to Brooklyn Center to Wadena are taking root. They are good for children’s health, can give children a positive sense of purpose and enhance classroom curriculum.

For example, children can use math to calculate the size of the beds and spacing of seedlings. They may write a recipe book, honing grammar and spelling. They might learn the life skills of responsibility and reliability by taking turns weeding and watering.

“Multiple studies indicate a wide range of benefits from school gardens,” says Kirsten Saylor, an educator and school garden consultant to St. Paul Public Schools.

Furthermore, advocates say, a school garden’s educational benefits accrue over time – just as students’ mastery of English, math or any classroom subject builds upon concepts over the school year and from year to year.

Yet a garden is a huge undertaking – there’s soil prep and planting, weeding and watering, harvesting and distributing the produce. And much of the workload comes during growing season when students and staff aren’t around.

One solution is hiring a paid school garden coordinator to build what Saylor calls “a web of support” to sustain a school garden as a well-managed, meaningful learning environment that provides hands-on learning complementing and even enriching traditional classroom subjects. A paid coordinator can also manage necessary summer garden maintenance with the community’s help.


What is a school garden?

First, it’s not a community garden located on school property, but a garden intentionally integrated into the life of the school including its curriculum and its community, for which the school takes responsibility and owns the management.

“It is a place of applied learning, student and family engagement, and a hands-on link to educate about our food system,” said Saylor, who also coordinates the school garden at Bruce Vento Elementary School.

“We want to encourage school gardens to be more than the occasional salad bar garden, and to be able to integrate the garden into classroom education,” said Deb Dilley, a University of Minnesota SNAP-Ed educator in Bemidji. Gardens offer students a way to access healthy foods; a profound sense of achievement when they harvest vegetables they’ve grown over a season; and a foundation for lifelong learning about nutrition, basic food science, and applied skills such as cooking.

Saylor and Dilley are members of the Minnesota Schoolyard Garden Coalition, an informal statewide network of educators, youth workers and school district staff.

The coalition facilitates networking, offering quarterly meet-ups at different school gardens in the metro area and in greater Minnesota, and sharing successful gardens on social media. With the support of the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum, the coalition hosts an annual school garden conference each spring.

A key priority is to support school garden sustainability including advocating the role of paid school garden coordinators. A paid coordinator could be a consultant such as Saylor or Youth Farm staff, or a district or school employee.


Why a paid coordinator?

Paid coordinators make a difference in a couple of ways. First, they help teachers to use gardens in developmentally appropriate ways aligned with classroom curriculum; “Whatever best meets the needs of their students,” says Amanda Stoelb, associate director of Youth Farm, a Twin Cities nonprofit operating 15 garden sites, including partnerships with nine schools. She’s also a member of the MN Schoolyard Garden Coalition. “Teachers are limited on time and have a lot thrown at them.”

Secondly, coordinators can provide consistent management over the whole growing season and school year, ensuring a garden thrives and is harvest-ready when students return to school in the fall.

Dilley recalls the first school garden in the Bemidji area that launched to great fanfare.  “It was huge! The kickoff and the involvement, there were a few teachers and the principal involved. We had a very large garden space,” Dilley said. “There was grant money, SHIP money, a deer fence.”

However, a few years later the initial excitement waned; families and students in the rural area couldn’t commit to showing up often or had their own gardens to tend. Teachers retired.

“All of a sudden we didn’t have volunteers. The principal and her husband were the ones tending it during the summer. We had big campaigns to involve people; it would last for half of the season,” Dilley said. In the end, although the school couldn’t sustain the higher maintenance vegetable garden, they used the land for an orchard and to grow raspberries and strawberries. A paid coordinator could have ensured the success of both the garden and an orchard, Dilley believes.

Incorporating the role of school garden coordinators into state education policy and funding would be ideal, said Dilley, but would require long-term advocacy. In the meantime, there are other approaches: looking to private donors to support the work, or large school districts with more capacity to pilot successful gardens with paid coordinators.

Stoelb says the painstaking work to communicate and coordinate school gardens is worth it.

“I have seen a lot of students who struggle in a classroom thrive in a garden setting,” Stoelb said.  “They are conversational in different way. They are engaged in a different way. I also see students get that tangible sense of accomplishment in the garden. We think gardens are serious business.”