The following is an excerpt from Connecting Children to Nature: Ideas and Activities for Parents and Educators, edited by Michael Bentley, Michael Mueller, and Bruce Martin, “Chapter Sixteen: Engaging Teens in Learning Outdoor” by George Ambrose.
Engaging Teens in School Gardens
Our local community has an Economic Development Council (EDC) that, among other projects, started a local Farmers’ Market on Saturdays during the growing season. As it turned out, however, none of the farmers who ended up selling produce at the market were local—they drove in from New Jersey. The EDC approached our high school environmental club to see if there might be interest in a school garden with produce being sold at the Farmers’ Market.
When the proposal was presented to our environmental club, students responded enthusiastically. Pursuing it further, we learned that the expectation was that the garden would be on the school grounds, located only 5 blocks from the Farmers’ Market. What the EDC had not considered—and what we soon found out—was how complicated it is to get anything new started in a public school, especially when it involves the use of school grounds and a water source!
The students, however, were not to be deterred. In order to get the project underway our club had to get all the “stakeholders” to buy-in, including the principal, the custodian, the outside grounds-keeper, and even the football coach. And, of course, we had to have school board approval. This is where making connections with relevant organizations and experts really helped. Community resources are invaluable! We were fortunate to receive logistical support from the state horticultural society’s community gardens program, benefitting from their years of involvement in urban gardens.
Thus the garden project became a major venture for our environmental club. In the planning phase, the garden location was narrowed to three sites, but only one was near a water source. That location was on the edge of the football practice field, adjacent to the fence surrounding the tennis courts. Once we decided on the site, students presented their proposal to the School Board Property Committee and finally our garden project received approval.
The site itself was covered with turf grass that was regularly treated with both herbicides and pesticides. We asked students in an advanced science class to analyze the toxicity of the chemicals that had been applied. After getting those results and studying our options, the students decided to build raised beds above ground level. The students constructed 8 raised beds in the spring and filled them with untreated topsoil.
Our club was fortunate to have the help of a college student intern, provided by the EDC. Her background included experience in farming, and she and a number of her friends helped build the raised beds. While the beds were built in May, we waited until June (when school was over) before planting. We soon found out that waiting so long to plant was a mistake. Sufficient harvest for the market was not available until mid-July. We should have planted earlier. A lesson learned.
As the garden project proceeded, club members debated putting a fence around the garden for keeping out ground hogs, squirrels and rabbits. They finally decided on a six-foot wood post wire fence with a gate. As a concession, we keep the gate unlocked. There had been no vandalism or theft, as some students feared. A surprise to us all has been that several school neighbors (and teachers) have asked if they could have their own garden plots. At this writing students are making plans to add these additional spaces.
Another issue for the students to solve regarding the school garden was access to water. Initially the students connected hose links to make a 300-foot (90 meter) hose, but after 2 weeks, that setup malfunctioned. The unusually dry summer in our area made matters worse. The garden badly needed a reliable source of water. Fortunately, a neighbor whose house is adjacent to the school stepped forward and offered to supply our garden from his outside faucet using a hose through the fence. We later returned his welcome contribution with bags of fresh produce and an end-of-season letter for a tax credit.
When the club finally did get its produce to market, the school garden project proved to be a big success. Students in the club designed T-shirts emblazoned with our garden motto “Five Blocks Fresh.” Signs on the garden, the adjacent street, and at the Farmer’s Market spread the word. The students’ produce sold out every week we were there. The “profits” got funneled back to the club so the students could upgrade our equipment and buy seeds and supplies for the next season.
This year the project is refreshed with new tools and beds revitalized with compost mulch. And the students were ready to plant in May! Again, success grew our program and brought a number of new students (with a variety of motivations) into the club, along with community volunteers and further donations for tools and plants.
Another part of this success story relates to our subsequent college intern. She is one of our graduated club members from a previous year. In her first year of college she parlayed her high school environmental club experiences into a paid position as her college’s “Student Garden Coordinator” and then used that job to become our summer intern. This was such a positive experience that she is now rethinking her major. I believe that experiences teens have in extracurricular activities like this school garden project are powerful determiners of what they study academically, and even in making career choices and establishing lifelong interests and pursuits.
Over many years working with youth in our school’s environmental club, I have seen the participating teens become more aware of and knowledgeable about the world around them. Deep understandings of natural cycles, interdependencies, and “systems thinking” lead them to see the relevancy of math and science in their lives. I’ve seen many examples of young people reconnecting with what Rachel Carson calls their “sense of wonder”—about everything from the macroinvertebrates in a stream to the entire planetary ecosystem. It is the sense that the “world is fresh and new and beautiful, full of wonder and excitement.”