We are living in uncertain times, but here’s something to lift the spirits: About half the schools in the District now have a garden.
The gardens are neither luxuries nor insignificant. To young, formative minds, these green spaces represent an introduction to the delicate and vital dance between nature and the city in a century when the two must come together in harmony as never before.
I stopped by Leckie Elementary School in Southwest Washington on a recent, blustery Saturday to watch an army of volunteers (including former Redskins players), teachers, students and nonprofit organizers put the finishing touches on a new school garden that will connect grade-schoolers to nature. It’s sweet to think that a 6-year-old planting a bean seed next spring might well be showing her great-grandchildren how to do the same at the turn of the next century. The Leckie garden’s elements include outdoor classroom spaces, a vegetable garden in raised beds, a grove of birch trees, a meadow garden, perennial beds and that essential marker of a working garden: the shed.
Among the participants was Joe Ludes, an instructional coach with the garden’s coordinating nonprofit, Real School Gardens, whose job is to train teachers at Leckie and other schools in the city in how to use the space as an outdoor classroom. (The construction was sponsored by the Washington Redskins Charitable Foundation.)
Some lessons are obvious, such as the biology of growing a radish from seed. But the garden offers insights that go far beyond the brass tacks of cultivation. Geology, hydrology, poetry, music, ecology, cooking and microbiology all find a home in this arena we call a garden, as well as dozens of other subjects beyond most people’s imagination.
Jeanne McCarty, chief executive of Real School Gardens, tells the story of a teacher whose students couldn’t grasp the concept of the Earth’s rotation until she held a class outdoors, put up a string and let them watch its shifting shadow.
The District has become a beacon to other cities in large part because of a 2010 city law, the Healthy Schools Act, which established a school garden program. In 2011, 82 of 233 public and public charter schools had gardens. By 2016, the number had grown to 127, said Sam Ullery, the system’s school garden specialist.
What the players in this movement have learned is that gardens don’t look after themselves and that all the passion of one player at a school to install and maintain a garden is not enough. “Say you have one parent who takes it on and then leaves; it falls apart,” Ludes said. After a garden is built at a partner school, Ludes provides training and instruction to as many as 24 teachers over a two-year period.
The obstacles to and the success of a garden often are wrapped up in the dynamics that play out in every school: the support and budget priorities of the principal, the outlooks of the teachers, and the external support that a garden gets.
Schools across the country — and this is a national movement — have found all manner of ways to bring that outside help into the school garden, with master gardeners, garden clubs, PTA members, college interns and others. In the summer months, when the children are gone for the most part and the garden is at its most fruitful and needy, it can morph into a neighborhood community garden.
Ullery’s office awards grants that pay for a garden coordinator, but “we require that schools partner with an outside organization for support.”
One of them is DC Greens, which provides school garden coordinators with training, curriculum support and connections to others. Garden coordinators “were working in isolation, and we brought them together,” said Sarah Holway, who co-founded the organization after she tried, as a teacher, to get a garden going at Bancroft Elementary School and realized “there was nothing out there to support that position.”
Sometimes the garden coordinators have to focus not on the students but on the teachers. “If they’re having trouble engaging the staff, we tell them, ‘Forget about the kids and start focusing on the staff, and get them to feel the magic of the garden,’ ” Holway said.
Richard Louv, the San Diego-based author of “Last Child in the Woods” and other books about connecting kids to nature, said when he spoke to teachers a decade ago the reception was cool. “Here’s this guy asking them to do one more thing,” he said. “Over the years, teachers have become among the best audiences. I think they have come to the point where they’re so fed up with the testing they need a release, too.”
But teachers also see that many students’ minds come alive in the garden in a way they don’t in the classroom. The environment itself is transforming. “There’s something about being outside in a natural setting that seems to stimulate the senses,” Louv said.
What is becoming clear is that in schools with gardens, the students do better. Many studies are bearing this out. In a newly published University of Maryland study of D.C. school gardens, researchers tracked significant differences in fifth-grade test results between students with gardens and those without. In reading, for example, 61 percent of students in garden schools tested as proficient or advanced, compared with 38 percent in schools without gardens. For math, the difference was 56 percent compared with 36 percent, and for science, 47 percent against 21 percent.
The lesson, perhaps, is that school gardens are a boon to learning, that the movement is now mainstream but not universal, and that they need a web of support within schools and the community to flourish. But gardens are ephemeral and will decline quickly if neglected. It would be a great loss if that were to happen.
For many of these children, nature, once discovered, will seep into their lives in ways that can and cannot be quantified. One falls back to the observation of that 19th-century aesthete and nature lover John Ruskin, who pointed out that “there is no wealth but life.”