Rose Hayden-Smith •

school gardens

A Little History of School Gardens

We often think of school gardens as a new trend. But school gardens were actually used in parts of Europe as early as 1811, and mention of their value preceded that by nearly two centuries.

In the United States, one of the earliest school garden programs was developed in 1891, at the George Putnam School in Roxbury, Massachusetts. (Today, the nationally recognized Food Project also teaches youth about gardening and urban agriculture in the Roxbury neighborhood of Boston).

These school gardens taught much more than simply horticultural skills. The founder of the children’s school farm at DeWitt Clinton Park in the Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood of New York was quoted in Marie Louise Greene’s book Among School Gardens, saying:
“I did not start a garden to grow a few vegetables and flowers. The garden was used as a means to…teach them in their work some necessary civic virtues, private care of public property, economy, honestly, application, concentration, self-government, civic pride, justice, the dignity of labor, and the love of nature…”
Today, school gardens continue to teach valuable skills to students and their communities. Learn more about the history of school gardens in this article from, which was originally published in Kitchen Gardeners International.

Incidentally, these historical posters were produced by  illustrator Maginel Wright Enright Barney for the war effort. She was the younger sister of Frank Lloyd Wright and a noted children’s illustrator, whose work continues to charm readers to this day.

Read the article.

The past could hold keys to a new national food policy

The past could hold keys to a new national food policy. I would encourage policy makers and influencers to search our nation’s past for historical precedents that could help some of these ideas gain traction. They exist.

And there are some things we could do immediately that would facilitate positive transformation in the food system. Many of these recommendations are based in historical practice. These are teachable moments in our nation’s history, but also actionable moments.

1. Capitalize on the phenomenal interest in gardening. Support a gardening ethos at all levels, incorporating policy, practice and demonstrating personal value.

To paraphrase Gandhi, be the change you want to see in the food system. Grow something for yourself. Grow something for your community. Move your backyard garden and make it a front yard garden. Claim an unused space in your community and grow it. Share your gardening skills with youth in your community, at a school or an after-school program, or through a church youth group. Volunteer to grow container vegetables at a senior facility. Scale up to the community level – and the state and then national level – much like the Victory Garden programs of WWI and WWII.

2. Preserve what is grown. Reduce food waste.

We should also focus on food conservation and preservation…and on reducing food waste. The amount of food waste in our nation is staggering; simply reducing that could help address at least part of the nation’s hunger issue. WWI and WWII models of food conservation and preservation programs provide a clear road map on how to accomplish this task. The Cooperative Extension Service is seeing growing interest in its Master Food Preserver Program, which equips volunteers to train others in communities on food preservation […]

“Victory Garden book is a winner”

The Patriot Ledger has reviewed “Sowing the Seeds of Victory” and is terming it a “winner.”

It’s not too late to buy a copy for the holiday season. If you do, and if you email at this site, I’ll send the recipient a lovely  bookplate signed by the author, gratis.  Just include the pertinent information.


“A Garden for Everyone. Everyone in a Garden.”

By |December 15th, 2014|Categories: school gardens|Tags: |0 Comments

Testimonial: the value of a school garden

This is a real testimonial about the value of a school garden. You can’t make this stuff up. Here’s an email I received today from a teacher at a school where our University of California Cooperative Extension team installed garden beds this last school year. I have made minimal edits to the email to protect the privacy of the students, but the location of the program is the Middle School Opportunity Program at Foothill Technology High School in Ventura Unified School District. (This is an innovative and targeted program at one of the nation’s highest achieving public high schools. Foothill was just ranked by Newsweek magazine in its top 100 public high schools, as #77 among all high schools, and #54 nationwide at effectiveness in serving low-income students).

At the end of a challenging day, I found this in my inbox:

“Our garden continues to thrive!  My students love it.  They run over to it first thing each morning to check the progress of their plants.  Right now we have the last of our tomatoes, the last of the strawberries, bell peppers, snacking peppers, cucumber vines that are flowering,  pumpkin vines (we planted those late), radishes, cilantro, chives, corn, and broccoli (something is eating the leaves.  Ideas?).  I am teaching plant science and it has been so wonderful to use our garden plants for examples.  It makes the lessons so much richer.

The kids have asked me if we can install two more planter boxes.  I told them I would check with you to see if you have more.  If not, we will make them ourselves.

Again, thanks so much for getting us started last year.  The addition of our garden has made our program more enjoyable for […]

Lemony Snicket: doomed to repeat history?

“Those unable to catalog the past are doomed to repeat it.” Yes, I’m quoting Lemony Snicket, (from the “A Series of Unfortunate Events” books). In the case of school, home and community gardens, repeating history might not spell doom. In fact, it would be a good thing. Gardening may seem to be an ordinary topic, too mundane and unchanging to have an impact on history. In my book, “Sowing the Seeds of Victory”, I argue that on the American home front during World War I, the call to gardening was new and distinctive, elevated to high public importance. I also make the argument that I believe the same thing is becoming true again today, as a new generation of food activists attempts to change the food system via gardening, urban agriculture, and through a variety of other means.

The WWI Liberty/Victory Garden programs, food conservation and preservation efforts, and school garden programs invited the nation’s citizens to create (or re-create) gardens as a way to recapture an earlier “golden age” in American experience (a golden age that may or may not ever have existed).

The imagery was of republican self-sufficiency, mutuality, and civic contribution. Some of these impulses are reflected in today’s movement. In WWI, gardens were an integral part of American life as a location of national identification and purpose, of synthesis between competing spheres (urban and rural, domestic and public, consumer and producer, immigrant and native-born) during a period of national transition and transformation. Should gardens occupy the same location today? YES (minus the military stuff).

Gardens were also intended to be a place of redemption from any number of ills that plagued American social and cultural life. (They still are). Those who sought to […]

World War I: Ann Street School Garden

During World War I, students at the small Ann Street School in my community of Ventura, California, raised two tons of potatoes in their school garden. Their work, replicated in thousands of schools across the United States, had its roots in a broader national imperative that mobilized citizens of all ages to help boost wartime agricultural production and encourage consumption of local foods. While these national programs encouraging home, school, and community gardens reflected cultural, social, and political conditions specific to the World War I era, they established a public practice that has been revisited during war and other trying times. Today, they contribute to national sustainable food systems initiatives.

Ann Street Elementary was razed decades ago. The neighborhood school was rebuilt and is now called “Lincoln Elementary School.” The school has a garden, still, bordering on Ventura’s Main Street, visible to passersby as one enters the heart of the downtown community.

For more about the vital topic of school gardens – past and present – read my book, “Sowing the Seeds of Victory: American Gardening Programs of World War I.”

“A Garden for Everyone. Everyone in a Garden.”

WWI posters: Penfield recruits gardeners here

Nearly every nation used posters to mobilize the home front during WW1. Posters were widely used on the American home front to recruit school, home, community and workplace gardeners, and to encourage food conservation.

This WW1 poster, created by noted artist Edward Penfield, recruited teen aged girls into service as gardeners on the American home front. In a different take on youth gardeners (generally depicted as younger and more cheerful), a brooding young woman dressed in a uniform pushes a wheeled cultivator. Her hair and dress foreshadow the ways in which women would use the war to challenge stereotypes.

The striking visual imagery and rhetoric of this and other posters played into larger themes stressing the nature of American freedom, citizenship, and patriotism. 

Read more about posters and propaganda in Chapter 4 of “Sowing the Seeds of Victory”. 

Until next time, “A Garden for Everyone. Everyone in a Garden.”

By |June 9th, 2014|Categories: school gardens||0 Comments

Resiliency: Read the WRDC report (and my book)

Today I’m thinking about resiliency. It’s hot in California, fires are burning in my parched community, and newspaper headlines tell me the ice pack is melting faster than anticipated. We are living in times of great uncertainty, change and challenges.

100 years ago our nation and the world were also entering a period of great uncertainly and rapid change as World War 1 forever altered the political, cultural, social and even physical landscapes of nations across the globe.

I’ve written extensively about WWI, and the centennial of the Smith-Lever Act, which created America’s Cooperative Extension Service (CE). CE – commonly called “Extension” or “Agricultural Extension” – has had enormous impacts on American agriculture and in American communities during the last 100 years. If you’ve ever participated in 4-H, worked with a Master Gardener, or been involved with agriculture, you’ve worked with CE. CE was just starting 100 years ago, but the organization helped Americans of all ages and stripes to produce and conserve more food on the home front during WWI, thus enabling the nation to ship more food abroad to our allies

One of the biggest challenges facing all of us right now is sustainability. The term means different things to different people, and is difficult to unpack and understand. I think a better way to frame this might be to consider “resiliency”, i.e., building capacity to respond and adapt to the myriad challenges facing us. To learn more about the thinking in Extension circles about sustainability/resiliency in relation to food, energy, air, water and land, please read this report, produced by the Western Rural Development Center. It’s truly excellent, you’ll learn a great deal, and it’s FREE.

Full disclosure: I wrote the thought piece on sustainable […]

By |May 14th, 2014|Categories: school gardens||0 Comments

Sowing the Seeds of Victory: The book is out!

My new book, “Sowing the Seeds of Victory: American Gardening Programs of World War 1″, is available. In it you’ll find not only the fascinating history of the iconic Victory Garden programs of WWI and WWII, but specific public policy recommendations that could help us transform today’s food system.

“On a foundation of good food we can build anything. Without it we can build nothing.”

Henry Aagard Wallace, Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Vice President, shared these words with the American public at the outset of World War II. Wallace had previously served as the USDA Secretary, and was a primary architect of the restructuring of the modern American food system during the Great Depression. Wallace knew the importance of food – and what the U.S. government termed “nutritional defense” to national security.

These words are relevant today. Childhood nutrition remains one of the most persistent challenges we face in this nation, and is inextricably linked with issues of morality, national security, and the social and economic well-being of our nation’s future.

Read my book to learn how we can transform our nation’s food system, one garden, one community, one Victory Grower at a time.



By |May 4th, 2014|Categories: school gardens||0 Comments

The History of School Gardens: Part 2

School gardens were used in parts of Europe as early as 1811, and mention of their value precedes 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.

School gardens have been around for a long time, and their history matters today. 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.  Gardens required all three of these things; for this and other reasons, Froebel advocated for school gardens during the course of his life.

Late 19th century educators such as Maria Montessori and John Dewey built upon educational theories espoused by these earlier philosophers and reformers and extended them. Both Montessori and Dewey spoke specifically about gardening and agricultural education for youth.  They both saw the acquisition of practical (i.e., vocational) skills as only part of the value of gardening experiences.

In both World War I and II, the United States also sought to encourage youth to express their love of country and commitment […]