School Garden Case study

By Yvan Zebroff

This year, the students and staff at Canada Qingdao Secondary School have developed a small school garden. The garden is one of the products of a three-year Whole School Project.

CQSS shares facilities with a large, ‘key’ public school in Qingdao, China. Qingdao is a beautiful, coastal city of some seven million inhabitants. Key schools are those whose students excel on standardized exams. Like all such schools in this city of seven million inhabitants, the focus in this school is on academic performance and test preparation. Classes begin at 7:20 am and end at 6:30 pm. After dinner, students are required to sit in a study hall until 10:00 pm, at which time a final bell rings and they go back to their dorms. Lights are turned off at 10:20 pm. After a brief sleep, the daily cycle begins again.

Last September, it would have been difficult to imagine a more unlikely place for a school garden. Looking out their classroom window, students peered on to a sports field covered with artificial turf. One would have been hard-pressed to spot more than a handful of plants on campus. The non-human world was glaringly absent from students’ daily experience. Knowledge of nature, when presented in the science curriculum, inevitably seemed distant and abstract.

In deciding to build a school garden, we hoped to create relationships between students and the non-human world. As Principal, I felt this a worthwhile aim and had the leverage to make the garden happen. I managed to convince my colleagues at the host school that this was a worthwhile venture.

In science class, students researched suitable plants and drew up plans for the garden. Students and staff then presented these plans to administrators of both schools. As a committee, we considered and discussed the strongest features of each of these plans. Finally, I consulted with the Principal of the host school and we devised the final plan. We agreed to include a grassy area with trees and garden beds. The host school also agreed to provide benches for raised garden beds.

Preparing the garden area proved challenging. The area in question was laden with rubble from bygone construction projects. All of this debris needed to be dug up and removed, and new soil needed to be brought in. We were fortunate to have ongoing support from the host school. They ensured that necessary materials were delivered. Once the soil was prepared and garden beds constructed, planting began in earnest. The trees and grass came first. Once sown, the grass was covered with bamboo mats. Groups of students were then able to select garden beds. Each group became responsible for tending to, and maintaining one of these beds.

I am relatively certain that the methods used at CQSS may not work as effectively in schools elsewhere. Each context is different. Power in Chinese schools tends to be centralized. In other contexts a grassroots approach could prove more effective.

Establishing a school garden has already proven a worthwhile addition to the school. Now, our students can look out and see the product of their efforts. Many visitors to the school campus visit the garden. The garden has added life to this campus. For CQSS, it has opened up possibilities for further exploration and learning. It has promoted curiosity about the non-human world. If it is possible to build such a garden here in Qingdao, it is certainly possible to do so elsewhere.

Curriculum Connections: Exploring Vocational Focus Areas through Garden-Based Learning

This year, I have decided to utilize the garden to promote student understanding of vocational ‘focus areas’. Such learning fits the prescribed learning outcomes of the Planning 10 curriculum.

By Grade 12, students need to select one focus area as part of their graduation transitions portfolio. The general idea is that as part of their secondary school experience, students decide what they would like to study after graduation. From Grade 10 onward, they begin preparing for this, first in planning class and later as part of the Graduation Transitions curriculum. In practice, this component of the curriculum tends not to evoke a great deal of enthusiasm (on the part of teachers or students). I sensed that approaching the focus areas through the garden could ‘invigorate’ learning in planning class.


I began by offering students an opportunity to use a particular focus area as a lens for developing and exploring the school garden. The five focus areas students could choose from were 1) Humanities, 2) Art and Design, 2) Science, 4) Media and Technology and, 5) Business Administration. Individual work produced could be added to the students’ graduation transitions portfolios.

Students approached the garden through their particular focus area. For example one student decided to hone her abilities as a cartoonist through their work. By Grade 12, this student will develop expertise within this focus area. In the meantime, she will have plenty of opportunity to develop relationships with the non-human world. Importantly, as students gain expertise in any given area, they can also share their understandings with others. Such interaction will occur within and across grade levels (e.g., the media group might run a workshop on creating a short film on the life cycle of corn; scientists might give a lesson on utilizing the scientific method to assess various weeding methods, etc.).

More …

A brief introduction to Garden-Based Learning initiatives.


Garden-based learning (GBL) is a hands-on, experiential approach most suited for an interdisciplinary form of pedagogy. In accordance with the advice of many prominent educators over the years, it can help teachers “eradicate the fatal disconnection of subjects which kills the vitality of our modern curriculum” (Whitehead, 1959, p.10).

GBL allows students to learn a variety of subjects while developing a greater sense of their connectedness to the land, and everything that grows on it. A wide range of subjects can be integrated into a GBL curriculum including: biology, soil science, agriculture, chemistry, food science, health, mathematics, language arts, history, planning, cooking, and art.

Not only does a school garden teach students about the science of life but also about the interconnected nature of the entire web of life. Environmental issues are complex but the various ecological crises we face today make it imperative that our students learn more about them. These complex issues cannot be understood through a single subject; GBL emphasizes “the study of interactions across the boundaries of conventional knowledge and experience” (Orr, 1992, p.90). GBL also allows students to enter into a stewardship relationship with other living things and to see how their actions can have a significant impact on the long-term health of their physical environment as well as their own bodies. The well-known American farmer and writer, Wendell Berry, summarized it well: “The health of organ and organism is the same, just as the health of organism and ecosystem is the same” (Stone & Barlow, 2005, p. 34).

The food produced in school gardens can be utilized in school cafeterias. This could contribute to a wide range of benefits for students (Stone & Barlow, 2005). By emphasizing nutrition in an engaging, hands-on manner, schools could help reduce the rapidly rising incidence of childhood illnesses such as obesity and Type 2 diabetes. Many schools that have implemented GBL have noticed a significant improvement in the eating habits of their students (Graham & Zidenberg, 2005). The combined processes of growing, cooking, and eating nutritious food can help establish an overriding school culture centered on healthy living (Laurie, T. 2001). Through GBL, students could learn meaningful lessons about food and waste cycling through direct involvement with these processes.

GBL is a very diverse practice. It must be adapted to fit a given school and community setting. GBL includes a wide range of educational practices aimed at utilizing horticultural methods for educational purposes. School gardens can include such features as potted plants, raised beds, indoor vermiculture composting, in-ground plantings (Graham et al., 2005), green-houses, fruit trees, habitat and butterfly gardens, ponds, and outdoor composting areas (Graham, Feenstra, Evans, & Zidenberg-Cherr, 2004).

A brief history of Garden-Based Learning.

School Gardens Throughout History


The first known school garden can be traced back to the Greek philosopher Epicurus (341-270 B.C.E.), who founded a school called the “The Garden”. It was named after a nearby garden that served as a meeting-place for his students. Much later, the Czech educator, Comenius (1592-1670) stressed how garden-work can improve social skills and create a dynamic learning environment: “A school garden should be connected with every school where children can have opportunities for leisurely gazing upon trees, flowers and herbs and are taught to appreciate them” (as quoted in Desmond, Grieshop & Subramaniam, 2004, p. 34). The Swiss educational reformer, Johann Pestalozzi (1746-1827), used farming and gardening skills in his teaching approach, combining the use of hands, heart, and head; he famously quipped that “when [a child] hears a bird sing or an insect hum on a leaf, then [his teacher] should stop talking” (Mackey & Mackey Stewart, 2009, p.2). Radical child-centred teaching philosophies, such as those of Pestalozzi, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) led to educational reforms that emphasized the individual child and active learning. Outdoor education (including school gardens) became much more prominent throughout Europe, Australia, and North America by the end of the 19th century.

In the 20th century, the American philosopher and educator, John Dewey (1859-1952), was extremely supportive of school gardens and saw them as an ideal learning environment for his pragmatic, “learning by doing” approach. The Italian founder of the Montessori method, Maria Montessori (1870-1952), stressed the importance of developing intimacy with the natural world from a young age; her school for special needs children involved the development of the senses through regular walks in school gardens where the children would experience a variety of natural sights and sounds.

From 1891 (when the first American school garden was founded in Massachusetts) until 1920 there were huge gains in the popularity of school gardens in North America and by 1910 there were about 80 000 US school gardens. During this time period every US state and every Canadian province had at least one school garden. During World War I the popularity of school gardens increased greatly as the US government encouraged more gardening at homes and in schools to help the war cause. Interest in school gardens in North America declined after World War I but resurged again during World War II, again as a part of a patriotic gardening movement. After World War II the interest in school gardens decreased again as more educational emphasis was placed on the physical sciences and technology as a result of the Cold War rivalry.

The 1960’s saw a small resurgence of interest in school gardens in North America as part of the counterculture movement. Interest in school gardens waned again until 1993, when The American Horticultural Society held its first symposium on school gardening. This led to a new revival in GBL (Mackey and Mackey Stewart, 2009, p. 3-4). The Edible Schoolyard program, introduced by Alice Waters in 2000/01, has led to a huge increase in the popularity of school gardens in California in recent years.

School Gardens: Contemporary context

GBL has now become a national movement in the United States. State departments of education in Texas and California actively support school gardening by creating curricula and financing evaluative research (Dirks & Orvis, 2005; Ozer, 2007). A vast majority of gardens and gardening curricula are currently being implemented at the elementary school level (Waliczek, Bradley, Lineberger, & Zajicek). By 2005, 57% of California schools reported the use of instructional gardens or plantings (Graham, Beall, Lussier, McLaughlin, & Zidenberg-Cherr, 2005). School gardens have spread to cooler, northern states. New York State has more than 200 school gardens, with some 11,000 students taking part in gardening programs (Faddegon, 2005).

In comparison to the US, GBL in Canada is far less developed. However, there are a number of schools that have either started GBL programs or have expressed interest.


In the US, a number of curricula have been developed for school gardening programs. These include: the 1978 Life Lab K-5 Science Program (LifeLab, 2006); the 1990 GrowLab curricula (National gardening Association, 2006); Texas A&M’s Junior Master Gardener Program (Dirks & Orvis, 2005); UC Davis’ curriculum Nutrition to Grow On (California Department of Education, 2005; Morris & Zidenberg-Cherr, 2002); and New York’s curriculum Kids Growing Food (Faddegon, 2005). These curricula share some significant commonalities: specifically, they are interdisciplinary and provide opportunities for authentic, experiential, and problem-based learning. Through these curricula, students construct their own knowledge through research, discussion, exploration and application.

Some specifically Canadian resources are available for the implementation, management and promotion of school gardens. These include: curriculum material developed by the Evergreen organization; links to North American GBL sites on the City Farmer website; and several webpages outlining specific school garden projects in Canada. American GBL resources are also valuable. Of course in many cases, these need to be modified to meet the specific requirements of Canadian educational and environmental contexts.

A reading list/references for Garden-Based Learning.

Reference List

Alexander, J.; North, M.W.; Hendren, D.K. 1995. “Master garden classroom garden project: an evaluation of the benefits to children”. In: Children’s Environments, 12(2), 256-263.Blair, D. (2009). The child in the garden: An evaluative review of the benefits of school gardening Retrieved from;

Bell, A. 2001. “The pedagogical potential of school grounds”. In: T. Grant; G. Littlejohn (Eds), Greening school grounds. Creating habitats for learning. New York: New Society Publishers.

Desmond, D., Grieshop, J. & Subramaniam, A. (2004). Revisiting garden-based learning in basic education. Retrieved from “”

Dirks, Amy E. and Kathryn Orvis. 2005. An evaluation of the Junior Master Gardener Program in third grade classrooms. HortTechnology, 15 (3) 443-447.

Genzer, S., R. Seagraves, L. Whittlesey, C.W. Robinson, S. Koch, et al., 2001. Junior Master Gardeners Level 1 Golden Ray – health and nutrition from the garden. Newman Publishing; Bryan, TX.

Graham, H., Beall, D., Lussier, M., McLaughlin, P., & Zidenberg-Cherr, S. (2005). Use of schoolgardens in academic instruction. Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior, 37(3), 147-151.

Klemmer, C.D., T.M. Waliczek, and J.M. Zajicek. 2005. Growing Minds: The effect of a school gardening program on the science achievement of elementary students. HortTechnology, 15 (3) 448-452.

Lieberman, G.A.; Hoody, L. 1998. Closing the achievement gap: using the environment as an integrating context for learning. San Diego: State Education and Environment Roundtable.

Lineberger, S.E.; Zajicek, J.M. 2000. “School gardens: can a hands-on teaching tool affect students’ attitudes and behaviors regarding fruit and vegetables?” In: Hortechnology, 10(3), 593-597.

Mackey, B. & Mackey Stewart, J. (2009). Librarian’s Guide to Cultivating an Elementary School Garden. Columbus, Ohio: Linworth Books

McAleese, J. D., & Rankin, L. L. (2007). Garden-based nutrition education affects fruit and vegetable consumption in sixth-grade adolescents. Journal of the American Dietetic Association, 107(4), 662-665. doi:DOI: 10.1016/j.jada.2007.01.015

Morris, J., & Zidenberg-Cherr, S. (2002). Garden-enhanced nutrition curriculum improves fourth-grade school children’s knowledge of nutrition and preference for vegetables. Journal of the American Dietetic Association, 102(1), 91-93.

Murphy, Michael and Erin Schweers. Evaluation of a food systems-based approach to fostering ecological literacy. Final Report to Center for Ecoliteracy, 2003.

Nanney, M.S., Johnson, S., Elliott, M., Haire-Joshu, D., 2007 Frequency of eating homegrown produce is associated with higher intake among parents and their preschool-aged children in rural Missouri. Journal of the American Dietetic Association 107, 577–584.

Orr, D.W. (1992). Ecological Literacy: Education and the Transition to a Postmodern World. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press

Ozer, E. J. (2007). The Effects of School Gardens on Students and Schools: Conceptualization and Considerations for Maximizing Healthy Development. Health Education & Behavior, 34, 846. doi:DOI: 10.1177/1090198106289002

Robinson, C.W., & Zajicek, J.M. (2005). Growing minds: The effects of a one-year school garden program on six constructs of life skills of elementary school children. HortTechnology, 8, 579-583

Skelly, S. M., & Bradley, J. C. (2000). The importance of school gardens as perceived by Florida elementary school teachers. HortTechnology, 10(1), 229-231.

Skelly, S. M., & Zajicek, J. M. (1998). The effect of an interdisciplinary garden program on the environmental attitudes of elementary students. HortTechnology, 8, 579-583.

Smith, Leanna L. and Carl Motsenbocke. 2005. Impact of hands-on science through school gardening in Louisiana Public Elementary Schools. HortTechnology, 15 (3) 439-443.

Stone, M.K. & Barlow, Z. (2005). Ecological Literacy: Educating our Children for a Sustainable World. San Francisco, CA: Sierra Club Books

Thorp, L., & Townsend, C. (2001, December 12). Agricultural education in an elementary school: An ethnographic study of a school garden. Proceedings of the 28th Annual National Agricultural Education Research Conference in New Orleans, LA (pp. 347-360). Retrieved from

Waliczek, T.M., & Zajicek, J.M. (1999). School gardening: Improving environmental attitudes of children through hands-on learning. Journal of Environmental Horticulture, 17, 180-184

Waliczek, T.M., Bradley, R.D., & Zajicek, J.M. (2001). The effect of school gardens on children’s interpersonal relationships and attitudes toward school. HortTechnology, 11, 466-468

Waliczek T.M., Logan, P., & Zajicek, J.M. 2003. Exploring impact of outdoor environmental activities on children using a qualitative text data analysis system HortTechnology 13(4): 684-68

Whitehead, A.N. (1959). The Aims of Education and Other Essays. New York, NY: The Macmillan Company

Student Work: Meeting Curriculum Outcomes.

Coming soon.