Home & Garden

Learn by growing

As school goes back this fall, some students are heading back outside. They'll spend hours weeding, picking, munching, feeding worms - and learning, too. School gardens are not new, but more and more schools are realizing they're not a luxury. In fact, they're a unique way of bundling together science, nutrition, environmental and social issues that give kids ownership of their surroundings - and some serious snacking.

A school doesn’t have to be big, though, to have a garden – or wealthy, or even garden-savvy. Four South Sound schools show that whether you have one planter box or a quarter of an acre, any gardening you do at school has lasting benefits.


Lincoln Options Elementary might be tucked away in one of Olympia’s historic neighborhoods, but it’s hard to miss the school garden.

On a quarter-acre site, with a 60x30-foot greenhouse, a chicken coop, three cinder-block compost heaps and a worm-bin the size of a Dumpster, this is one serious school garden. Founded in 1995 by former science/music teacher Michael Dempster, the garden is now a major part of the alternative school’s curriculum.

All students grow starts from seed in the classrooms, and spend an hour each week in spring planting out. Each class adopts a crop in the winding beds – corn, tomatoes, greens, flowers for insects – and families sign on for weekly care during summer.

During fall, classes tend weekly until the Harvest Fest (this year on Oct. 2), which features an all-school lunch cooked by kids and parents entirely from garden produce. There are six additional beds grown for gleaning by the local food bank, mature fruit trees and vines, even a sunflower house with a morning glory roof.

Student-painted signs label all crops.

“It’s a tremendous resource for the community and the school,” says parent Karen Ray, who has coordinated it for the last four years.

But it also is hard to maintain. While Lincoln Options has a firm school policy of parental involvement and The Evergreen State College interns teach many lessons, coordination inevitably falls on one person’s shoulders. The school is working on a funding strategy to make that a paid half-time position.

“This garden isn’t sustainable for volunteers,” says Ray. “It’s very draining.”

One thing Ray has done to help spread out the work is to educate parents.

In the greenhouse, in front of a shelf of boots, gloves and tools, are laminated sheets on recognizing weeds, how to pick, how to prune, how to operate the hose system.

There are job lists for volunteers to check off, and a calendar of what’s in season for eating.

“It helps people who are intimidated by a garden,” she says.

The Lincoln garden also offers huge benefits to students, quite apart from the joy of eating school-grown pesto, pumpkin pie and pasta sauce.

“Kids develop a taste for food they wouldn’t have tried otherwise,” says Ray. “They see natural cycles and participate in them. They learn about science in an outdoor environment. It’s good physical activity. And there are some kids for whom the garden is a refuge, they’re more at peace here than anywhere.”

Finally, the garden helps students understand their environment.

Explains Ray: “We feel very strongly that we need to teach kids to be good stewards of the land … how to grow their own food. As a society, we’ve become quite disconnected from the land, and it is becoming increasingly important that we reconnect.”


At Lister Elementary on Tacoma’s east side, there isn’t a farm full of chickens and lush tomatoes – just eight weedy planter boxes on a concrete patch near the playground.

Everything’s parched and barren, but when fourth-grade teacher Debra Snow looks at the Lister garden, she sees kids eating good food.

The garden is run by the Washington State University Extension in its Square Foot Nutrition program, which links gardening with healthy eating in over a dozen schools in the Tacoma and Clover Park districts.

The program is funded through the U.S. Department of Agriculture Food Stamp Nutrition Education project, and is available to schools with 50 percent or more students on free/reduced lunch.

At Lister, WSU staff visit in four-week blocks to teach whichever classes have interested teachers. During fall, they plant bulbs and garlic and teach plant growth; in spring they help kids plant salad veggies and teach good food choices, harvesting later for eating in class.

They also partner with local high schools to build planter boxes. It’s free for the school, which couldn’t otherwise afford the materials, and takes the burden off teachers for curriculum.

The best result for Snow, though, is the long-lasting effect on her students’ health: “It’s a great program. The students really learn that if you eat icky stuff, your system won’t work as well.”


There’ll be a whole lot of pesto-eating going on this fall at Lowell Elementary.

The North-end school’s garden is full of basil, not to mention planter boxes filled with tomatoes, carrots and potatoes, and even peppers grown in old car tires for warmth.

Ten years old, it’s a garden that is sustained by a committed PTA, with paid parent-teachers and a $700-a-year plant budget.

“It started as a fifth-grade community project on how to beautify the school,” says Sass Ruthven, whose daughter was in the project.

After 50 parents spent a day building boxes and shovelling compost, the garden began as an after-school activity with only a few classes involved.

Then more parents were recruited, and four years ago the PTA began paying two parents $10/hour each to teach gardening to every class.

Ruthven is the outdoor parent, taking a few kids at a time to work in the garden, while the indoor parent teaches science and prepares the harvest as a healthy class snack.

Spring is spent planting – potatoes, beans, onions, peas, greens, carrots, cucumber and tomatoes – and fall is spent making lots and lots of pesto before mulching the beds and planting cover crops for winter.

Two bake sales per year raise money for plants, which the school gets at a discount from Portland Avenue Nursery. The school also just began recycling cafeteria scraps in the compost heap and worm bin, and a winding herb garden was added last year.

“I am extremely proud of our garden program,” says Ruthven, of the transformation from dull concrete to beautiful outdoor learning space. “I think it’s one of a kind.”


School gardening doesn’t have to be all about veggies, though. At Baker Middle School in Tacoma’s south, Armin Antonio’s sixth-grade science students are learning all about sustainability through their newly reclaimed native garden.

Piloted last spring, the class worked on an L-shaped jungle of ivy in a courtyard off the teacher’s lounge, ripping out the invasives, planting natives and hanging birdhouses to create wildlife habitat.

For Antonio, it’s an excellent way to link science to the real world, partner with local businesses through donations, and give kids pride in their surroundings.

“I wanted to have our own school as a learning laboratory, to teach sustainability,” says Antonio, who was inspired by an educators’ course on sustainability in education during the summer of 2008. “I thought, ‘What can we sustain here? How can I tie in climate change and other world issues?’”

The answer came in the school’s population of native birds. In class, Antonio got students to research their habitat and food. They got to work pulling out the ivy and planting salal and Oregon grape, and the courtyard now resembles a miniature Northwest forest, though Antonio says there’s still plenty for this year’s class to do.

Baker also has a more traditional garden, spearheaded by two other teachers and filled with weeping mulberries, corn, tomatoes and herbs: It’s invaluable, say school staff, for encouraging needier kids.

Says Antonio: “Students get a hands-on experience of local problems, learning the social aspect of science. They also begin to take ownership of their environment.”

Rosemary Ponnekanti: 253-597-8568


school gardens

Here’s advice from parent Sass Ruthven, who’s run the Lowell Elementary school garden during its entire 10 years.

 • Find someone who has ownership of the garden to run it and commit to looking after it. Ideally, this would be a partnership and change each year, to avoid burnout.

 • Use raised beds. You can have designated class areas; they’re easier for kids to work and things grow better.

 • Use a lot of compost and amend the soil.

 • Organize a summer watering roster so the garden lives through harvest season.

 • Good plants to try include carrots, basil for pesto, and salad greens. Says Ruthven: “Kids will try anything from the garden.”

 • For more on the WSU Extension Square Foot Nutrition school garden project, call 253-798-7193 or go to www.pierce.wsu.edu/nutritionyouth/sfnp.htm.