- Posted By: Rose Hayden-Smith
- Written by: Rose Hayden-Smith
In 1909, Ventura schoolteacher Zilda M. Rogers wrote to the Agricultural Experiment Station at the University of California, Berkeley, then the flagship agricultural campus for California’s land grant institution, and a primary proponent and provider of garden education resources for schoolteachers. Rogers wrote in some detail about how her school garden work had progressed, what the successes and failures were, how the children were responding to the opportunity to garden, how her relationship with the children had changed as a result of the garden work, and what she saw as potential for the future.
“With the love of the school garden has grown the desire for a home garden and some of their plots at home are very good. . . . Since commencing the garden work the children have become better companions and friend . . . and to feel that there is a right way of doing everything. . . . It is our garden. . . . We try to carry that spirit into our schoolroom.”
More than 100 years after Rogers wrote those words, school gardens have continued to be cherished in the public school system in which she worked. The Ventura Unified School District has developed a nationally recognized model that links school gardening, nutrition education and a farm-to-school lunch program featuring many locally sourced fruits and vegetables for its 17,000 public school students.
The University of California took note of the success that educators like Rogers were experiencing with school gardens. Being certain to include the words written by her, the University of California published Circular No. 46, which offered information about how to build school garden programs. School gardens were to be an integral part of primary schooling. As the circular declared, “The school garden has come to stay.”
School gardens had been used in parts of Europe as early as 1811, and mention of their value preceded that by nearly two centuries. Philosophers and educational reformers such as John Amos Comenius and Jean-Jacques Rousseau discussed the importance of nature in the education of children; Comenius mentioned gardens specifically.
The use and purpose of school gardens was multifold; gardens provided a place where youth could learn natural sciences (including agriculture) and also acquire vocational skills. Indeed, the very multiplicity of uses and purposes for gardens made it difficult for gardening proponents to firmly anchor gardening in the educational framework and a school’s curriculum. It still does.
The founder of the kindergarten movement, Friedrich Froebel, used gardens as an educational tool. Froebel was influenced by Swiss educational reformer Johann Pestalozzi, who saw a need for balance in education, a balance that incorporated “hands, heart, and head,” words and ideas that would be incorporated nearly two centuries later into the mission of the United States Department of Agriculture’s 4-H youth development program. (These words still guide the work of the University of California’s 4-H program). Educational leaders such as Liberty Hyde Bailey and John Dewey fused ideas of nature study and experiential education with gardening.
Perhaps one of the earliest school garden programs in the United States was developed in 1891, at the George Putnam School in Roxbury, Mass. (Today, the nationally recognized Food Project also teaches youth about gardening and urban agriculture in the Roxbury neighborhood of Boston). Like others interested in gardening, Henry Lincoln Clapp, who was affiliated with the George Putnam School, traveled to Europe for inspiration. After traveling to Europe and visiting school gardens there, he partnered with the Massachusetts Horticultural Society to create the garden at Putnam; the model was replicated around the state. It was followed in relatively short order by other efforts, including a well-known garden program in New York City: the DeWitt Clinton Farm School.
Gardening became nearly a national craze during the Gilded Age and Progressive Era and “school” gardens enjoyed immense popularity. The United States Department of Agriculture estimated that there were more than 75,000 school gardens by 1906. As their popularity soared, advocates busily supplied a body of literature about school gardening and agricultural education.
One book argued that school gardens were not a “new phase of education,” but rather, an “old one” that was gaining merit for its ability to accomplish a wide variety of needs. School gardens were a way to reconnect urbanized American youth with their agrarian, producer heritage, the Jeffersonian idea of the sturdy yeoman farmer. One author argued for the importance of gardening education and nature study for both urban and rural youth, for “sociological and economic” reasons.
One important reason to garden with urban youth was to teach “children to become producers as well as consumers,” and for the possibility “of turning the tide of population toward the country, thus relieving the crowded conditions of the city.” Other reformers echoed this idea, including Jacob Riis, who said, “The children as well as the grown people were ‘inspired to greater industry and self-dependence.’ They faced about and looked away from the slum toward the country.” It’s now more than a century later, the average American farmer is in his/her late 50s, and the need to reconnect a new generation of youth to the land seems even more compelling. Could the school gardens of today provide the farmers of tomorrow?
The school garden movement received a huge boost during World War I, when the Federal Bureau of Education introduced the United States School Garden Army. During the interwar years and the Great Depression, youth participated in relief gardening. During World War II, a second Victory Garden program swept the nation, but after that, school garden efforts became the exception, not the norm.
The 1970s environmental movement brought renewed interest to the idea of school and youth gardening, and another period of intense growth began in the early 1990s. Interest in farm-to-school has continued to breathe life into the school garden movement, and some states, notably California, have developed legislation to encourage school gardens. (Under the tenure of State Education superintendent Delaine Eastin, a Garden in Every School program was begun. Under Jack O’Connell’s tenure, Assembly Bill 1535, which funded school gardens, was approved).
We should all take note of the tagline for the U.S. government’s youth gardening program in World War I: “A Garden for Every Child. Every Child in a Garden.” Wouldn’t this be a great idea today? With the cuts in school funding, increased classroom size and other challenges, some school garden programs are facing real challenges. They deserve our support, not only in practice (volunteer!) but also by our advocacy for public policies that support youth gardening work in school and community settings. Why not advocate for a nationally mandated curriculum that promotes food systems education in American public schools, something like “Race to the Crop”?
Some of the best models for school gardens lie in our past. But the real potential of school gardens to reduce obesity, encourage a healthy lifestyle, reconnect youth with the food system and to build healthier, vibrant communities is something we can realize today . . . and is something that should be an important concern of our national public policy.
A note to readers: Google Books contains copies of two important books in the school gardening literature of the Progressive Era, (Miller and Greene’s), as well as numerous other Progressive era books pertaining to gardening and agricultural education. To learn more about the United States School Garden Army’s efforts during WWI (a GREAT model for a national curriculum today!), visit theUC Victory Grower website.
- Author: Rose Hayden-Smith
The governor has released a list of state properties that might be for sale in this time of unprecendented budget crisis. On that list are a couple of fairgrounds, including the Ventura County Fairgrounds.
The Ventura County Fairgrounds is actually California's 31st Agricultural District, and is under the oversight of the California Department of Food and Agriculture. You can visit that website to learn more about our Fairs and Expositions; they represent a great, and perhaps underutilized resource in our state.
Per a report produced under the leadership of Gray Davis (remember him?):
The full report is at: http://www.cdfa.ca.gov/Fai
We know that the mission of fairs has grown to include commercial ventures that hold little relation to agriculture (such as car races). But I also know that the Ventura County Fair is one of the last great fairs in California, one that truly evokes the spirit of agriculture, past and present, and helps people to understand more about those who work to feed us.
California legislates by ballot box. Competing initiatives and propositions from different election cycles make it difficult to develop and provide a coherent and sustainable roadmap for the state. The passage of one ballot initiative, for example, may rule out another.
California's initiative law was passed in 1911, during the Progressive Era. Ballot initiatives provided an instrument that enabled 'the people' to check excesses during a period when there was little regulation of industry or other aspects of American life (call it the Gilded Age). Peter Schrag, a columnist with the Sacramento Bee, has written about this in "Paradise Lost," which is available at
(Schrag has also written a book more recently about California as America's "high stakes" experiment. He generates interesting and thought-provoking work that will challenge your thinking in any number of ways. If you hold the view that the beginning of the budget crisis in CA dates back to Prop 13 in 1978, Schrag's work may resonate with you. Even if you don't hold that view, you'll find his viewpoint worth considering, and he's a lively writer).
We are in a world of budget trouble in California. I have been sharing this with the many Mid-Westerners that I speak to on a daily basis. I don't know that my out-of-state friends fully comprehend the size of the state, and the implications for the nation if the experiment here fails. Per 2008 census estimates, 36,756,666 Americans live here...that's nearly 1 in 12. We have more than 6 MILLION students K-12 enrolled in our public school system; that's greater than the entire population of some other states. We're a MEGA state by nearly every index, including the challenge index.
So what does this have to do with the sale of state property? Agriculture is not just something that's part of our past, as in some other places. It's vital to California's future, and the state's current economic health. And the kinds of foods we produce are vital to human health, which ought to be a national priority. This is important and heady stuff, the stuff of a nation's food security, a nation's future.
How do we preserve this and assure agriculture's vitality for future generations? We continue to educate the public about the importance of agriculture, no matter how deep the budget cuts go. If anything, we do MORE. Agricultural education is our seedbank; it is where we should be sowing more now, to reap future benefits. Not just in California, but nationally.
The threat to sell state properties such as fairgrounds may be a publicity stunt on the part of the Governor. He is clearly trying to let citizens know that we are in a dire situation, and that whether these ballot measures pass or not in the upcoming special election, that there is going to be a lot of pain to go around. He is daring us to consider what might happen if we fail to approve these measures. Double dog dare the voters.
But talk about selling fairgrounds? If we value the future of agriculture in California, this is not a dare any of us should be willing to take.