How to Start a School Garden
An inner-city teacher shares how he taught kids to garden – and how you can too.
Stephen Ritz believes that connecting kids with nature and food can help them attend school, perform better and graduate.
The New York City teacher’s garden began as a surprise (he shares the story below). In addition to plants, the fruits and vegetables that he and his students grow feed 450 kids in school (with events such as salad days). The food also goes home with the students and is made available in the community via farmers' markets and by selling food to restaurants. Some of his students participate in Green Bronx Machine, his nonprofit organization.
“We find that when kids are healthy and happy and engaged, they do better in school,” he says. “They like seeing things grow, so they like the responsibility of putting something in the ground or a cup and seeing their responsibility. I tell them to sing and talk and be nice."
Teachers can find school garden resources from groups such as the Audubon Society, which has a GreenKids program, the North American Association for Environmental Education, and state and regional environmental education organizations. For example, the Western Growers Foundation has a goal to plant a fruit and vegetable garden in every Arizona and California school that wants an edible garden.
“We have kids who have literally seen a vegetable for the first time in their lives in my classroom and now they’re all helping to grow them,” Ritz says.
Ritz chatted about how to start a teaching garden.
Q: How did your garden begin?
A: I am not a farmer. I’m an inner city guy. But I got into this literally when someone sent me a box of daffodil bulbs. I had kids who were struggling in school. I literally hid them behind a radiator to hide them from the kids. Lo and behold, one day the kids went behind the radiator to get a weapon. Instead of finding a weapon, they found flowers. Kids like plants. Even the worst kids love plants. That’s when I realized we could do something here.
Q: Why are school gardens important?
A: If you teach kids about nature, they learn to nurture. Most important, my kids are learning. I got them to graduate high school (his students’ daily attendance rate has increased from 40 percent to 93 percent). Then along the way I realized we could grow food. We have organically grown citizens and graduates. The single most effective tool I have been able to use to engage kids has been growing food. So many of my kids have little to no access to fresh food (at home).
Q: How can teachers and parents start a school garden?
A: Keep it simple. Start small. Keep it manageable. You want it to be a privilege. I have kids who think that spending time with me in the garden is a privilege.
Q: What’s a way to start small, if there’s no existing garden?
A: A window box. Or a houseplant. My favorite thing is a tower garden (a vertical garden system).
Q: What if there’s room for a garden plot outside?
A: Find out what the kids want to eat. Or find out what the faculty wants to eat. Or what could a school cafeteria use. Or what could you sell. Be outcome driven. If the kids are vetted in it, it’s great. Or if the faculty are vetted in it, that’s awesome too.
Q: How do you involve your students?
A: In my garden I have jobs for everybody. I have growers, I have planters, I have destroyers, I have leaf monitors. Think about inclusivity. Some of the basic tasks, like generating seedlings, can be boring and monotonous. But some of my special needs kids and kids with development disabilities love doing it.
Q: How can teachers incorporate learning with gardening?
A: I don’t expect the kids to be farmers, but I expect them to read about it, write about it. We are keeping track of the amount of water and measuring input, output. To me, it’s a science tool. It’s a tool for education.