Gardening in the School Curriculum
The manner in which gardening fit into the public school curriculum was hotly debated from the advent of school gardens in America. Was gardening scientific training or connecting to nature? Practical training in economy or beautification? For numerous rural schools in western and Midwestern states, gardening was the laboratory for many other lessons: soil science, fertilization, plant propagation, botany, seed science, cultivation, tool use, irrigation systems, animal husbandry in the garden, insects, experimental methods, and record bookkeeping. More generally, the U.S. Bureau of Education provided the following list of applied lessons for school gardens in 1915: Hotbeds and cold frames, soil preparation, planting, care of growing crops, marketing and garden equipment.
Some school garden advocates emphasized the need to connect the practical lessons of agriculture and gardening with other academic school subjects: writing and language arts, math, foreign languages, science, art and geography. Students were encouraged to keep a notebook where they recorded whether observations, germination rates, expenditures and earnings. They were also to write essays or poetry or draw from images in the garden. Here’s how George Washington Carver described gardening as the primary source for instruction in several school subjects:
Nature study as it comes from the child’s enthusiastic endeavor to make a success in the garden furnishes abundance of subject matter for use in the composition, spelling reading, arithmetic, geography, and history classes. A real bug found eating on the child’s cabbage plant in his little garden will be taken up with a vengeance in the composition class. He would much prefer to spell the real, living radish than the lifeless radish in the book. He would much prefer to figure on the profit of the onions sold from his garden than those sold by some John Jones of Philadelphia.
From Nature Study and Children’s Gardens, Teacher’s Leaflet 2, Extension Division, Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute, 1906.
Most educators agreed that while it was appropriate for younger students to garden together in a common garden plot, pupils in grades four – six benefited most from gardening in individual plots. One-two hours per week in the garden was deemed sufficient, though some schools also encouraged pupils to tend to the garden during recess and after school. Even so, the majority of time spent on garden work, whether school sponsored or no, was after school or on Saturdays.
For teachers working with students in the school garden, there needed to be a balance between discipline and freedom. In those early days, many garden exercises focused on uniformity and efficiency, such as coordinating group raking or carrying tools in the correct manner. By today’s standards, it’s probably fair to say that discipline was militaristic.
In addition to obtaining technical skills in gardening, garden teachers were expected to establish good rapport with their students and families. The job required the ability to maintain strict discipline while also encouraging individuality. Teaching modern cultivation methods and a connection to science meant that teachers needed to garner a fair degree of technical gardening skills. Given the fact that many teachers were low-paid and had taken up teaching as a temporary occupation, not all were well enough equipped to provide the necessary expertise in modern cultivation methods. Nor did all teacher training institutions offer the instruction to prepare teachers for school garden work. One of the first was the Hartford School of Horticulture, a private school institution established in 1900.
Publications available to help teachers or civic groups to establish school gardens were Hemenway’s How to Make School Gardens and Greene’s Among School gardens. The U.S. Bureau of Education produced a range of circulars on school garden subjects. The U.S.D.A. was also an important resource, providing theoretical advice and practical services to the school garden movement. In 1905, they issued two bulletins: School Gardens, a description of the school garden movement in Washington D.C. and short summaries of projects elsewhere in America; and The School Garden, which suggested exercises about soil, plant growth, insects, disease, grafting, etc.