Raising the new crop

Get kids in the garden. Cultivate wonder, confidence, literacy and a lifelong connection to nature.

Don, the tiniest boy in Grade 1, tugged on my sleeve. “This is the best day of my life!” he exclaimed. He had been designated “foreman” of filling wheelbarrows with compost in the garden at Queen Alexandra Elementary School and he was working diligently to get the job done.

Queen Alexandra is situated at one of the busiest intersections in Vancouver – Clark and Broadway. It could be a stark environment for children, but partly because of a school garden program, it’s a place that cultivates wonder, confidence, literacy and a lifelong connection to nature. In place of bare gravel, sunflowers and wildflowers bloom. Chickadees feast on sunflower seeds; butterflies, ladybugs, bees and other pollinators abound; and a willow tree is beginning to provide shade. The children love their garden and, like many adults, would prefer to stay in it all day.

Children reap the same benefits from gardening as adults – a sense of stewardship, connection with the soil, the excitement of planting a bean seed and watching it sprout, followed by the satisfaction of eating the beans. Encouraging a love of cultivation through direct experience ensures that children will garden enthusiastically as adults.

All children enjoy digging and most want “the big shovel.” Large muscle movements like digging are great for settling boisterous (or upset) students. For children who aren’t doing well in the classroom, gardening may be their chance to shine. Successfully filling a wheelbarrow or planting a straight row of peas builds self-esteem. Tasks like these may also help them to make important connections between hands-on learning outside and book-based theory inside.

At Queen Alexandra, we have made Jerusalem artichoke soup, tasted all kinds of orange fruits and vegetables, learned about, cooked and ate root vegetables and staged mini apple festivals where students tasted many varieties of apples. We planted garlic and enjoyed school-wide “garlic bread day.” Each December, with the help of master gardeners, students make wreaths and swags to bring home using greenery from the garden. Students nosh on lettuce wraps and salads in May, and graze on raspberries in June, while summer school students and other visitors enjoy blueberries in July.

Queen Alexandra is by no means the only example. All over BC, school gardening programs are sprouting up:

• Primary students from Rutland Elementary in the Okanagan have a great time planting their veggie garden at the Hartman Road community plot. Here they experienced the life cycle of plants, saw how worms work and witnessed the formation of compost.
• When pine beetles created a wasteland at Blackburn Elementary in Prince George, students participated in a reforestation program, each planting a tree or shrub.
• Terra Nova Schoolyard Society in Richmond teaches kids from kindergarten to Grade 12 about water conservation, local flora and fauna, and the relationship between food and cultural diversity. Program founder Ian Lai is a chef and culinary instructor by trade. He was often dismayed by his students’ ignorance of seasonality and where vegetables came from. “Through hands-on authentic learning,” Lai says, “these kids will have gardening hardwired into their psyches.”

Back at the corner of Broadway and Clark, frisky Grade 3s search for treasures among tall, yellowing calico popcorn plants. Oohing and aahing, they marvel at the tiny cobs in shades of maroon, pink and red. One little girl looks perplexed. “I have a problem,” she says. “I wanted to be a teacher. But, now I think I’d rather be a gardener.”