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24 February, 2007

School Gardens - Just Nice?

I have been hearing a lot of shouting about school gardens over these last few week and most of the noise seems to me to focus on how much better one feels with a garden. I won’t argue that point , but I think it short-changes the positive effects of learning gardening.

Of course, I am prejudiced having learned gardening at a very young age. Over the years, gardening has saved my life in very real and tangible ways. It has helped me through depressions, divorce, and job loss. There is a tangible essence for me of love, healing and peace in a garden that is palpable. I don’t, however, have any illusions that every high school student who comes to garden will suddenly find the meaning of life here and come to live with it like I do. A very, very small percentage will. But they are such a small part of any success a school garden can hold the expense is not justifiable. So if that is our only positive result, school gardens cannot be sustained in this time of budget cuts through out California, if not the rest of the United States. There have to be other reasons to have school gardens. What could they be?

Our society has a good many problems and I believe gardening ameliorates a good number of them. In the first place, gardeners have been shown to have longer lives than the rest of the population as a whole. This in itself is not a good thing, if those longer years are spent as a feeble bed-ridden being, but the evidence seems to suggest the extra years are spent more physically active than the rest of society.

Researchers have pointed to the activity of gardening as being an ideal kind of exercise – it is aerobic enough, but it is not high-impact, and it is a sustained kind of exercise over a long period of time. And a gardener has to engage in the exercise several times a week. This kind of exercise, it seems, keeps one’s heart ticking and blood pressure in balance. And it is sustainable over years. Even if one has a physical problem, unless it’s really severe, unlike jogging or joining a club, a gardener can continue with some part of gardening. (There are no club fees, either!)

As a society, we spend far too much time indoors, watching TV, playing video games, surfing the web. More time spent outdoors engaged in some mild form of exercise has beneficial effects that are felt throughout one’s life.

I was walking Casey earlier tonight and I noticed a home that had been sold had undergone some new landscaping. The new owners had taken out some shade tolerant shrubs and replaced them with lawn.

In the first place, 90% of the lawns we have in LA are a waste of resources. Very, very, very few lawns are used for anything. Some folks do have children who do need a lawn to play on, but the percentage of people who have children who have anything to do with a lawn don’t come near the number of people who spend money in trying to grow grass in what is essentially a desert. It is a folly that baffles me completely.

But these folks have done that problem one better by planting sun-loving grass in deep shade. They will be engaged in a fight everyday to keep that grass alive. They will have to water it and pour chemicals on it to keep it green because it won’t survive without human intervention. If they had taken a gardening class, perhaps they could have been saved their folly. I’d like to think so.

They would have learned that a plant isn’t like a couch or a chair that you can place in any corner of a room to match your ‘style.’ Or that you can recover willy-nilly. A plant has its own list of requirements just like other living things. But our society has gotten too divorced from plants to understand this.

And nutritionists love the idea of gardens, even though a good many of them don’t know beans about growing gardens. But they love the idea of gardens and that’s a start in the right direction. A garden can provide an abundance of fresh vegetables and herbs. I became a good cook after I had grown so many vegetables that I had to learn how to do something with them. And once someone has had a few fresh tomatoes, it can be difficult to eat tomatoes that were shipped in. I don’t even try – if I didn’t see it picked, you can’t interest me in a tomato. And, most vegetables eaten directly after harvest, have a sweetness that can make a candy eater morph into a veggie eater. It’s that store bought stuff that turns people off on vegetables. And overcooking is the next biggest culprit. Give a person, young or old, the chance to taste fresh peas, fresh corn, fresh tomatoes, fresh carrots or beets and you stand a good chance of converting them into a person who loves to eat the suggested servings of daily vegetables.

Our society is woefully short on nature experiences for almost all of our children. TV, video games, web surfing and a host of other indoor – or at least, not interactively participating with nature – have put us in an adversarial relationship with the life around us. Mothers bathe their children in bacterial killing soap (evidently unaware that bacteria are such a huge part of our lives that parts of our own cells are bacterial descendents – in fact, a good argument can be made that we ourselves are descendents of bacteria) and our obsession with the idea of ‘dirty’ things in our lives to me speaks to the disconnect that has occurred between most Americans and nature.

Putting a person in a garden can begin the process of healing this disconnect. A garden is not natural, as anyone who has gardened for any length of time will testify. In our one acre, we have probably several hundred species of plants, the vast majority, including the weeds, would not be here but for human intervention. The species we grow for food are almost always from other climates – there is no major food crop native to California that I know of. And most of the weeds have been imported as well. (One of the most vicious weeds we must contend with is Bermuda grass, which is assuredly NOT native.)

But getting a person involved in a garden can bring about enough interest in plants to change a life. One of our volunteers, after getting hooked on gardening, got into photographing her plants and that led to photographing insects and now she’s a veritable insect encyclopedia!

And while that is a little unusual, a lot of gardening enthusiasts do get involved in other parts of nature. Some get into butterflies and hummingbirds, a lot get into birds in general. And every involvement with nature we can prod along is important. Psychiatric research has shown that involvement with nature is essential to emotional well-being. We fail our society and especially our children when we don’t encourage involvement with nature in every way we can.

In short, without school gardens, we neglect to teach our children positive lessons about ameliorating the effects of industrial society; with exercise, with nutrition, with a connection with nature. These benefits are valuable to our society as a whole and individuals in particular.

A garden – any garden – in a city of concrete and pollution, helps heal the city by providing a green space of peace that has the same effects as looking at any art piece. A green space provides additional oxygen, helps to rectify air pollution as well as affording a space for ‘nature’ in the midst of manmade structures. A garden has meant refuge for countless generations of humans. We do not ‘forget’ that on a cellular level. That might well explain why houses near a green space in a city always command a higher resale value than equal properties in different locations. It might also explain why inmates who had a cell with a garden view were statistically less likely to report illness or engage in violent activity than inmates without a garden view.

If people – especially young people – are not afforded this kind of interaction, we can extrapolate a sicker, more violent and less healthy population. Let’s not dance around this integral truth: we are a part of nature and we need to embrace nature in our lives in very real terms. School gardens help that.

I want to also speak to the lack of sustainability in our current model of food supply, but that’s another article for a different day.

david