The Trouble With School Gardens

The Challenges of School Gardens And Sustainable Food Edmonton's Plan To Fix Them

Recent years have also seen an increase in schools interested in urban agriculture initiatives - especially school gardens. Traditionally run as extra-curricular activities or horticulture classes, school gardens are gaining traction in and around Edmonton. Not just nice to have, school gardens are tools for differentiated instruction, improving problem-solving, and cross-curricular learning. However, it's not smooth sailing. As much as many of us would like to see a garden in every school, there are a lot of challenges.

The Hard Part About School Gardens

Out of Sync - Unfortunately, school gardens have their challenges. For starters, the growing season and school year are out of sync as gardens are their most productive while the students are on summer break. Semesters compound the problem by rotating students in and out of classes.

Dividing Lines - School grounds are owned and maintained by the school boards, City of Edmonton, or (more commonly) a combination of both. Unfortunately, the rules of what goes where and what you can do on City vs. school board land is different. This uncertainty makes the process of installing a garden so unclear that many teachers become frustrated with the vagueness and (1) give up, or (2) go rogue and plant it anyway.

Burnt Out - In my experience, one or two motivated educators champion each school garden. They imagine an engaging education space, devise innovative lesson plans and go above, and beyond their job descriptions. These teachers need support - they need someone to run interference sometimes and the flexibility to make mistakes. Without that community of support, these passionate educators burn themselves out along with their gardens.

Moving Target - Now consider that teachers and administrators change every few years, the curriculum is updated every decade or so, neighbourhood demographics shift, and budgets revised (usually downwards). Now plant a tree with a 150-year lifespan into the middle of that. See the challenge?

Streamline The Process

Part of the problem is that there's no clear path forward - no established process or list of best practices. As a result, school boards are hesitant to install garden over concerns about maintenance, and many educators don't know where to start. That's why Sustainable Food Edmonton's (SFE) Urban Agriculture High program is working to develop a City of Edmonton and School Board approved school garden process. The process hopes to help in the following ways:

Simplify - Sustainable Food Edmonton will create a step-by-step process that Edmonton educators can use to design, implement, and manage school gardens. Recognition from local school boards and the City of Edmonton will be essential.

Design Guidelines and Best Practices - Each garden ought to be unique to the context of its school, but there should be some agreed upon best practices to ensure long-term success. As an example, the Edmonton Public School Board (EPSB) prefers raised beds as they're clearly defined and easy to perform routine maintenance around.

Sharing Resources - Though schools can tap into horticulture credits, most school gardens use school gardens to supplement core curricula (click here for a list of curricular links to school gardens). It would be great to gather resources such as lesson plans, labs, tools, seeds, and plant materials.

Dealing with Paces - Most importantly, we need to deal with the (out of sync) paces found in school gardens - the "what happens over summer holidays" and "what happens when the teacher changes schools?" questions. Fortunately, I think this is mostly a design problem. I think the real issue is how do you build a garden that is durable enough to provide continuity but flexible enough change and adapt as needed? Personally, I think there's promise in using Pace Layering thinking set out by Stewart Brand. Happily, I had the opportunity to meet Stewart and a group of passionate educators at a conference in San Francisco. Over the course of three days, we explored the concept or pace layering in the context of education and I begun to think a lot of school gardens and a possible framework for ensuring their long-term success.

I have come to believe that the best way to design a school garden is by started with its most stable (slow paced) components and designing outwards to it's quicker paces. The right combination of stable and flexible paces should give the garden continuity for many years while keeping it flexible enough to deal with seasonal, staff, and curricular changes. As such, the foundation for a sustainable school garden might look something like this:

  1.  Site Selection. Where's the most appropriate place for the garden? Does it have access to water, sunlight, students, the general public? Who owns the lands and what kinds of agreements need to be in place? The site is unlikely to change over the lift of the garden.
  2. Site Infrastructure.  What resources are needed? Raised beds, paths, tools, sheds? Infrastructure will need to be replaced periodically - typically on the scale of years.
  3. Curricular Links.  As staff comes and goes, the garden needs to adapt to various programs of studies, lessons, and labs. Curriculum changes on the order of years while lessons can chance on a daily basis.
  4. Garden Plan & Design. Growing food is all the rage, but that could change with time. The design of the garden should be such that its focus can shift over time. What happens if the school wants to sell bedding plants? What do you do in 5 years if the focus has shifted towards growing medicinal, indigenous plants? Changes from growing season to growing season.
  5. Gardening.  The day to day act of care and maintenance. Who's responsible and what needs doing? Changes on a daily basis with the season and weather.

As of this articles writing, Sustainable Food Edmonton is creating this school garden process and is working with the schools, educators, school boards, and the City of Edmonton.

Dustin Bajer