January 15, 2011
A mere 10 years ago, many wondered if the school garden movement was just another passing educational fad, a variation of hands-on, project-based learning gaining popularity at the time. The movement has grown independently, however, feeding on trends in the broader culture — the alarming levels of obesity and diabetes, concerns over pesticides and food
safety, and the growing trend toward a more eco-conscious and "green"
Celebrity chefs such as Alice Waters and first lady Michelle Obama are promoting the school garden model as a way to teach kids about health and nutrition. These trends and concerns have fostered the growing interest in the school garden movement.
Arden Bucklin-Spore and Rachel Pringle have been a part of the movement for more than 12 years. Their collective experience is distilled into their recently published book, "How to Grow a School Garden: A Complete Guide for Parents and Teachers." Their book is a comprehensive resource that simplifies and breaks down the sometimes overwhelming process of creating a school garden program. Pringle is the programs manager for the San Francisco Green Schoolyard Alliance, which supports about 75 schools in the San Francisco Unified School District. Bucklin-Spore is executive director of the alliance. Both were involved in the creation of one of the first successful and comprehensive school garden programs in San Francisco, the Alice Fong Yu Alternative School in the Inner Sunset district.
"How to Grow a School Garden" covers all aspects of creating, using and maintaining a school garden, from the development and organizational phase to year-round student activities and lesson plans. Simple recipes that will inspire even students with the most lackluster palates are included. Their hands-on approach makes school garden projects accessible, inexpensive and sustainable.
While everyone would love to create a school garden like the one that Waters pioneered in Berkeley, it is not a great model for all schools.
"It shined a spotlight on the movement, but it's too big and ambitious for most schools," Bucklin-Spore says. The more achievable models begin through grassroots organizations and are funded through parent organizations. The SF Green Schoolyard Alliance was a small grassroots
organization for 10 years until the members went to school board meetings and advocated for the inclusion of "greening" into a large school facilities bond measure. The measure has already been renewed once since 2003
and will most likely receive continued support in 2011.
Over the past decade, the challenges for school gardens have not changed — among them, community support and vision, fundraising and school district resistance — and the common mistakes have now been codified and documented. Bucklin-Spore maintains that best way to avoid failure is to take the time, nine months to a year, to plan. "A school garden is not just any garden. It is an outdoor education classroom requiring considerable and thoughtful planning."
The initial excitement for setting up a garden can quickly fade if long-range goals are not established early in the planning process. Community support is also necessary for the long-term success of a program. The more people and organizations that support a school garden, the better. "Regional support networks are the hot topic these days," she says.
Sharon Danks, author of "Asphalts to Ecosystems," published in 2010, offers another inspirational guide to school gardens. Danks is an urban planner and a master plan strategist who has visited more than 150 green schoolyards throughout the world. Through the SF Green Schoolyard Alliance, she assists principals and teachers in the creation of ecologically diverse schoolyards. Her inspiring book is an easy-to-understand guide for creating edible gardens, wildlife habitats and other sustainable uses.
While there isn't an organization in Marin like San Francisco's, the UC Marin Master Gardener Program has a school gardens committee that supports local schools with expert advice and support. There are Master Gardeners now working with at least 20 schools in the county, either supporting the development of new gardens or resurrecting existing ones.