Skip to Content

Ahead of Their Time

When it comes to school gardens, it’s not all about the food.

That’s the message Jane Hirschi found herself presenting as she and her organization, CitySprouts, convinced school officials in Cambridge, Mass., to plant a garden on each campus.

Of course, Hirschi thinks the fresh fruits, vegetables and herbs grown in the gardens are important. But in order to get schools to buy into the idea that planting a garden was a worthwhile venture, Hirschi needed to do a little convincing that the garden wouldn’t interfere with classroom work — and it could be used to actually assist in daily lessons.

“I promised each principal who we worked with, and that’s over 20 principals now, that we wouldn’t bring in new curriculum,” Hirschi recalls. “They’re not teaching about food. We understand that their mandate [isn’t food]… Having respect for that, and not trying to compete with that, I would say was our entry in.”
Hirschi’s method worked. More than a decade since first introducing her idea, Hirschi and CitySprouts now operate gardens at all K-8 public schools in Cambridge. This year, the organization began gardens on two campuses in nearby Gloucester, Mass., and they’ll plant gardens at schools in Boston next year.

CitySprouts is a clearly leader in the fast-growing world of school gardens. Similar school garden programs have sprouted up over the past few years, but CitySprouts began before gardens were a trend. 

Hirschi recalls that when she went to her first principal with the idea to start a garden, she touted all its benefits (including the fact it could operate for free). The principal replied: “I don’t care so much for that. I care if it’s going to last.”

“That was like a big gulp for me,” she said, adding that she immediately thought: “‘I’m in this for a really long time, aren’t I?’’

Hirschi credits CitySprouts’ unique take on gardens for its lasting success (and its continued growth). Rather than use the gardens as their own curriculum — adding to the already jam-packed classroom schedule — the gardens serve as an instructional tool designed to assist teachers in teaching what they already are required to do, Hirschi explains. 

For example, math teachers might use the garden to explain measurements, while science teachers have an array of things they can teach in the garden. That hands-on education helps kids learn in new ways.

“For kids to learn about soil in the classroom is OK,” says Kim Goldstein, CitySprouts’ program manager. “But to be able to go out to the garden and look at the different rocks, or actually pick up the soil by hand and actually see what’s in the dirt, makes a profound impact on the kids.”

Of course, the students also are learning all the great things about gardening at the same time. Many of the students might not otherwise get in touch with nature, Goldstein notes, recalling that one science teacher told her that he had a student who had never seen a grasshopper before.

“For a lot of kids, this is a way to get outside and learn about the natural environment in a way that they just wouldn’t have,” Goldstein says. “Just to have that landscape in the middle of their school or in their courtyards, kind of draws all of the natural world: The butterflies, the good bugs, the bad bugs. They’re all drawn to the natural habitat.”

Teachers are perhaps the most important component of making the garden programs work. CitySprouts regularly surveys the teachers, and finds that up to 70 percent of them use the garden to teach at least once in the fall and once in the spring. 

Many instructors use the garden weekly, Hirschi notes, with Goldstein adding that some teachers love the break from the rigors of classroom work that the garden provides. “All of us here know how little time teachers have… I think that this is literally, and metaphorically, a breath of fresh air for them,” Goldstein says.

For gardening programs to work, all players must be on the same page, from parents and teachers to students and administrators. Key obstacles must be thought out, from cost to figuring out who will tend to the garden in the summer, when there’s a lot of work to be done in the garden.

CitySprouts operates a summertime fellowship program that sees local middle schoolers tend the garden during their summer break. The students also learn to cook, take groups on tours of the garden and learn about bigger picture issues such as food access.

“It took 10 years for CitySprouts to catch on throughout the whole district,” Goldstein says. “But when it did, it kind of grew and grew and grew every year. I think the city began to realize how important it was for the schools.”