Gardening, History, School Gardens

Part 3: Beginnings of the School Garden Movement


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It was the prevalence of successful school gardening and agricultural programs in Europe and Canada that encouraged the development of school gardens in America. Beginning with the Putnam School in Boston around 1890, school gardens across the country played an important role in the education and social development of countless American youth well into the 20th century.

The congested urban landscape of major cities created special hazards and challenges for American children. The combination of dangerous streets, vacant lots littered with garbage and refuse materials, foul air, and few city parks created environments largely detrimental to the health of young people. Additionally, citizens blamed these squalid conditions for the poorly developed character of children who were prone to delinquency and crime. Fannie Griscom Parsons, founder of the DeWitt Clinton Farm School in New York City, put it thusly:

City children are alienated from their human birth-right of trees, fields and flowers. Encased amid bricks, stone, concrete, trolleys, trucks and automobiles, the crowds of people in our streets are as giants to them, and the blue sky overhead is seldom seen. These conditions are making our children hard and unfeeling. Deprived of their natural lives, impelled by the restless energy of youth, they find mischief the only diversion possible, and they become easy victims of vice and crime. (from The First Children’s Farm School in New York City by Fannie Griscom Parsons, 1902).

As an example of the city child’s plight, one inner city grade school student remarked to his principal, when asked to comment on the harbingers of the approaching spring season, “Yes, ma’am, I know that spring is here when the saloons put on their swinging doors.”

For a number of social reformers, school gardens were seen as the antidote to poor urban conditions, teaching cooperation, patience, politeness, responsibility, and kindness. According to James Jewell, writing in a 1907 Bureau of Education bulletin, “School gardens in the slums of a number of cities have taught more civic righteousness than all the police courts…have been able to do” (James Jewell in Agricultural Education Including Nature Study and School Gardens, Bureau of Education, 1907). Numerous anecdotal accounts reported that children were much better behaved as a result of their participation in school garden programs.

Another benefit of including gardening in the school curriculum was the need to provide manual and practical skills to the many children who would not be going on to college. In some schools, gardening was offered as the manual skill of choice for boys, complimenting sewing classes for girls. For many boys, gardening taught the value of work in relation to earnings, efficiency, economy and thrift.

Some school reformers also criticized the traditional school model for inhibiting a child’s natural inquisitiveness by making him/her sit at a desk in the artificial environment of a classroom throughout the long school day. Efforts were made to provide active learning through playgrounds, recreation, and nature study, which made use of a child’s hands-on, direct experience in a natural setting. The school garden was a logical component of a nature study curriculum. It provided a place for the child to directly experience natural processes such as growth and decay, nutrient cycles, and the interrelationship between plants and animals. Additionally, the child gardener could see the tangible results (good or bad) of his/her efforts.

The 1907 report to the Bureau of Education cited above stated that children who participated in school garden programs achieved greater development in a given time and accomplished more in their regular studies than did children who did not participate.

The George Putnam Grammar School in the Roxbury district of Boston, Massachusetts is credited with developing the first school garden program in America. Henry Lincoln Clapp, a teacher at the school, was inspired by a tour of school gardens in Europe. With support from the Massachusetts Horticultural Society, Clapp established a flower and fern garden on the school grounds in 1891. A vegetable garden was added in 1900. Eventually, 82 vegetable garden plots were cultivated, each 28 sq. ft. in size. It wasn’t long before many other school gardens were popping up throughout Massachusetts and throughout the country.

In our next blog, we’ll learn about the DeWitt Clinton Farm School in Hell’s Kitchen in New York City and the growth of the school garden movement throughout the United States.  


City Bountiful: a century of community gardening in America by Laura J. Lawson, University of California Press, 2005

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