Original article in the San Diego Union-Tribune

By Heather Holland

Children and gardens have been a common theme throughout literature. From “Jack and the Beanstalk” to “Alice in Wonderland,” “The Secret Garden” to “The Lorax,” our storytellers have found beautiful and fantastical ways of emphasizing the connection between children and things that grow.

In a more real way, strengthening that connection between youngsters and the green world continues today in the blank spaces of school play yards that have been turned into school gardens. An unused corner of a school, a few lengths of lumber fashioned into an open box, nutrient-rich soil full of hungry worms, seeds and seedlings and, of course, water are the raw materials needed to create the learning ground that helps students understand how our food goes from farm (or backyard garden) to table.

Teachers and their garden consultants, many of them from the UCCE Master Gardener Program of San Diego County, impart the science of plant germination and growth while the kids get their hands dirty being the little farmers that these planter beds were intended for. This is their special space, and each day the wonder of watching a tiny seed sprout to the surface, to become a carrot or radish or stalk of corn, causes them to contemplate, “How did that happen?” Educators talk about a “teachable moment,” and school gardens have the potential of being a treasure chest of learning opportunities.

The benefit of school gardens has been well documented. Improving attitudes toward school, working together toward a common purpose, improved academic performance and greater impulse control are routinely identified as positive outcomes when students connect with the natural world through curriculum-based gardening activities. Students report that they feel safe, happy and relaxed when working in their school gardens.

All of this opens the door to unlimited student inquiry, which brings smiles to the faces of teachers, parents and garden consultants during these outdoor activities. Heard in the garden by Master Gardeners: “Will this tomato become a tree?” “What does a plum taste like?” “Is a caterpillar a good bug?” The natural inquisitiveness of children opens the door for more learning and more inquiry.

The beneficial outcomes go beyond academic improvement and often stay with the children throughout their lives. Students who have school gardens as part of their curriculum tend to eat more fruits and vegetables, and many become lifelong gardeners. Gardening in an educational setting is a cooperative activity and requires that useful interpersonal skills be developed, since the focus is working together to nurture young plants into healthy crops.

Life science is the most easily identified academic skill that is enhanced when kids have a school garden to stimulate thought, but teachers have found many ways to integrate other curriculum elements, such as math, nutrition, local history and writing into their school garden activities. At Jamul Elementary School, a retired teacher, Cass Crain, has brought the music program outdoors to practice among the chard, peas and basil where the young musicians, some of whom have tended these plants, get the full benefit of sun and fresh air while they serenade the soon-to-be salad fixin’s.

School gardens dot the landscape all over San Diego County. Hundreds currently exist from heavily populated South County to our northernmost rural communities. This school year, UCCE Master Gardeners will consult in 350 schools with more than 800 schools having been served over the last 20 years. Many of the schools that Master Gardeners support are eligible to apply for grants that can be used for start-up or expansion purposes. Barrio Logan is the site of a new cooperative between three elementary schools, UCCE Master Gardener Program and The Sage Garden Project. Master Gardeners at Sherman, Burbank and Kimbrough schools, with the help of teachers and volunteers, will support garden learning on each property.

Soon the elementary students at these schools will discover the value of organically rich soil to the carrot and radish seeds they will plant, that tomatoes and eggplants benefit from pollinators to produce what they will eventually harvest, and that our food is sometimes a stem, sometimes a leaf, sometimes a fruit and sometimes a root. They will see that a growing space, even one built in an urban area, attracts wildlife and that wildlife is important to the green world in their raised beds. They will learn that ants cultivate aphids that hurt plants, but ladybugs, other beneficial insects and hummingbirds eat aphids.

From “Eww!” to “Wow!,” it all happens in the garden. And success in the garden brings rewards. A special “I grew it myself” salad for lunch with tasty broccoli “trees” or “Those are our tomatoes” salsa with chips. School gardens are the places where smiles grow big.

To learn more

Want to know more about Master Gardeners School Gardens Program? Go online to www.mastergardenersd.org/school-gardens.

The opportunity to see a charming example of a school garden in action is coming up on Saturday, Sept. 28. Cajon Valley’s Chase Avenue Elementary School’s garden will be a part of the UCCE San Diego County Master Gardeners Fall Garden Tour (go online to www.mastergardensd.org/fall-garden-tour for tickets).

Holland has been a UCCE San Diego County Master Gardener since 2012. She volunteers in 31 school gardens across the county.