As school gardening projects received support from city parks departments, civic groups, and settlement houses, they were gradually able to reach out to more and more groups of children in the community. Some educators considered the school garden as a primary resource for producing social equity, since young gardeners worked shoulder to shoulder with one another and the work in the garden balanced teamwork with individualism. It was also a place where rich and poor as well as various ethnic groups could meet each other on common ground.
While the children of the rich and of the poor sit side by side in the same classroom and receive instruction from the same teacher, they do not necessarily learn the great lesson of social equality, but when they stand side by side and engage in tilling the soil they learn that “in work there is no shame” and that the real man is the same, whether clad in coveralls or in broadcloth. These are the lessons in my judgment that the children of America cannot learn too early.
Michigan State Superintendent of Public Instruction, A Study of School Gardens, 56.
School gardens were believed to be especially beneficial for the poor, minorities, and young delinquents. One of the most interesting targeted garden efforts was the one established for low income refugees of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake who were temporarily housed at Golden Gate Park. As part of the tent school situated there, a small area of the park was given over to a school garden. Individual children received seeds and a ten-foot square parcel of land. According to one report, the initiative was not just educational in scope, but was an “attempt to show these children of the city streets how many good things to eat and how many attractive flowers can be raised on a tiny patch of ground they can care for themselves and how much fun there really is in digging and planting in the ground.” The report continued:
Good pure air and vigorous exercise under influences that make for cleanliness is doing much to help these people to learn how to live. After seeing these happy children learning out in the open air by doing things for themselves with their own hands and heads, we must wonder if perhaps for many of them the earthquake and fire may not in future years prove a blessing rather than a calamity.
Bertha Chapman, “School Gardens in the Refugee Camps of San Francisco,” Nature-Study Review 2, 7 (October 1906): 225-29, quote p.229.
Another benefit of this garden was the way in which it brought ethnically diverse children into a unified school garden program:
When all were provided with seeds, these tots marched in glee to plant their four rows. Round faced and almond-eyed baby Sing worked beside a tall dusky Portuguese boy, while two little people fell naturally in their moment of deep interest to chattering in their native Yiddish, and there beyond glowed the merry face of Pat with red hair and freckles. Some of the children showed signs of having careful mothers, but many more, poor children of the street, let one read the sorry story of their birth in their sad, pinched faces and dull eyes.
As school gardens gained in popularity, there was naturally a growing debate concerning the merits of school-based gardens versus gardens at home. School gardens were more accessible and more easily supervised while also serving as school laboratories. Yet they were limited in space, an expense to the school, and prone to theft and vandalism. Even more problematic, school gardens were largely unavailable during long summer vacations, when most of the country enjoyed weather best suited for growing vegetables. Home gardens, on the other hand, provided access to underused land and left security concerns to the household. Moreover, they could be maintained during the long summer months. While school gardens encouraged the development of personal responsibility for public property, home gardens deepened a sense of private ownership and property. When school gardens were located at homes, teachers had a legitimate reason to engage with parents while conducting a friendly home visit. A 1917 study by the City of New York reported on locations of school garden locations as follows: 76.23 acres on school grounds, 7.8 acres in parks, 13.16 acres in vacant lots, and 1033 home gardens of varying sizes.
Source: City Bountiful: a century of Community Gardening in America, by Laura J. Lawson, 2008