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Garden to Classroom Learning

Teachers love their work. It's challenging and rewarding. Recently, and with growing enthusiasm, teachers around the country have been discovering a new resource: vegetable gardens.

Requiring only soil, water and a little know-how, school gardens support lessons in science, math, social studies, language and any other topic you can name. As a bonus, healthful eating and environmental appreciation are imbued in every lesson. These are sights to behold: 30 eighth graders using the scientific method to analyze sugar content in heirloom lettuce varieties, a Special Education class exploring sensory observations in an herb garden, a Social Studies class grinding wheat into flour for their segment on Native American heritage. A small garden goes a long way when productivity in learning is measured.

Garden-incorporated curriculum takes place on any schedule that suits a class, from once a week to every day. Students are greeted with a different experience each time. Activities can be as basic as measuring the height of corn plants each week or as complex as deciphering the Fibonacci sequence in sunflower seeds' pattern by eye. For creative teachers, the sky's the limit. Some ideas I've seen in action:

  • Middle-school math classes use compasses and calculators to document plants' angles and lines, then spend the week using that data to explore geometry or algebra. No extra tools are needed, and the class might even see a pollinator or two.
  • A social studies class might track the growth and harvest quantity of corn or rice, as societies all over the world rely on staple crops like these. Back in the classroom, they can explore the crop's history in detail: Pharaohs in ancient Egypt held power by storing grain, China's enormous stores of rice have carried it and its neighbors through several droughts. recent use of corn for bio-fuels have affected Mexican peasants' food supply and so on.
  • High school journalism students interview their classmates as they plant and water, learning skills of investigation and publishing while keeping the rest of the school up to date on the garden's growth. The season's first tomato or a sparrow perched on a sunflower offers eye- catching headlines and beautiful photos.
  • American History teachers can use gardens to bring to life the work of historical figures like George Washington Carver (1864-1943), the black inventor born of slave parents who went on to attend college, introduced crop rotation to the U.S. Congress and developed over 200 uses for the peanut, revolutionizing perceptions of African-Americans long before the civil rights movement.

These gardens are not without challenges. Urban schools encounter soil toxins, extreme heat and vandalism. (Solutions: compost, water and fences.) Rural schools battle deer and deep shade. (Solutions: fences and shade-tolerant plants like lettuce and kale.) Watering often falls to a custodian or devoted teacher, coming in early each day to check on the plants.

But supportive resources are growing fast. Teachers can consult the many books on organic gardening to get a sense of what to expect, such as regional planting schedules and harvest guides. Foundations and agencies offer grants for schools to build an educational vegetable garden on site. Local botanical and community gardens welcome class trips, giving students and teachers a taste of gardening.

I have been doing this for many years, and I've never seen a kid go home unchanged. My favorite quote, from a fourth grader in the Bronx: "I thought this trip was going to be boring, but it was great!" They love it even more than the adults do. And with the right mix of soil, food, conversation and earthworms, the experience will last them for the rest of their very long, very healthy lives.


Rachel Franz is an environmental entrepreneur living in Brooklyn, NY. She has been gardening and farming organically for nearly a decade, including farms in upstate New York and Costa Rica. She leads gardening workshops for children and teachers at the New York Botanical Garden. She is also co-founder of Big Apple Edibles, Inc., an urban gardening business based in New York City. For more information or a free consultation, contact her at

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