In the small mountain town where I live, sitting at an elevation of well over 5,000 feet, we're finally just days away from being able to plant seedlings in our produce gardens without the danger of a killing frost. As far as the world of gardening goes, this is either a land of perennially dashed hopes, or for the dedicated, a land of greenhouses and cold frames and strategic places along the south sides of buildings for the basil and the lemon grass and the dill.
Yet for all the struggle, what's pulled me into the spell of gardens as of late (besides the grand experience of eating food that tastes like food), is the intriguing history of our nation having long used them as outdoor classrooms for children. By 1910 school gardens were everywhere, in every state, championed by educators and pundits alike. Gardens were the way to teach math, said some, pointing to the calculations necessary to figure the size of plots and the number of seeds required, not to mention estimating profit after the expense of seeds and tools and fertilizer. No, said others, it was science that gardens offered up so well, pointing to elementary students investigating pollination, soil composition, aeration, germination, insect life cycles, water retention strategies. And on it went. Gardens to teach nutrition. Gardens to teach art and writing and cultural studies and critical thinking.
Even beyond all that, what impresses me most is the degree to which gardens have for a hundred years simply helped urban children access nature. Indeed, school gardens first caught fire in this country in the early 1890's - exactly the time when millions of Americans were growing anxious over the thought of the natural world disappearing from their daily lives. "School gardens should be maintained by the city," said Van Evrie Kilpatrick not long after the country's first school garden had been established in Massachusetts. "The city owes it to the children whom it has deprived of breathing places and beauty spots through want of foresight."
As a nature writer, I've long focused most of my work on sprawling wilderness areas - big animals running through big landscapes. But now I see school gardens coming back into fashion again, and it does my heart good. (Indeed, by some estimates over twenty percent of all American schools now have some sort of garden.) I know how important that kind of movement can be for our kids. And for us. And for this precious planet.