CitySprouts: Gardens with a Mission

by Katherine Pett

We know the benefits of providing schools with computers, books, and gluesticks, but should schools come with gardens, too? Katherine Pett visited The Haggerty School in Cambridge to see their school garden in action.

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Sign welcoming visitors to the Haggerty School Garden

I met up with Greg Beach, AKA “Gardener Greg,” on Monday, September 21, on a sunny fall day at the Haggerty Elementary School in Cambridge. Greg is a garden coordinator for CitySprouts, a non-profit organization that provides and maintains schoolyard gardens and teaches classes for students from pre-school through the 8th grade. Greg, who has been with the organization for 3 years, manages 4 gardens for 5 Cambridge schools. I was visiting the Haggerty to see a class’ first planting day.

CitySprouts was founded 2001 when the organization’s founder, Jane Hirschi, and other parents and teachers decided their children didn’t have enough access to the natural world as part of their education. The group banded together and created gardens for two schools in Cambridge to fill that need. Today, CitySprouts is at every public school in Cambridge and at 6 Boston schools.

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“Gardener Greg” does some maintenance before class starts

In addition to utilizing the gardens for lessons on food production and nature, CitySprouts founders wanted the gardens to be a good source for lessons in reading, science, math, and art, not to mention nutrition. Part of their mission statement reads:

“In an era of increasing disease caused by poor diet, especially for children in under-resourced communities, school gardens are an effective means to set children on a path toward life-long healthy food choices.”

Tiny and rambunctious, the class of 20, attended by their teacher and two assistant teachers, was visibly excited. A few students prompted Greg to remember them, “from kindergarten!” one exclaimed.

The class was split into two, and half the class was given sketchbooks and crayons. They were then released into the garden to find inspiring plants to sketch. The other half followed Greg into the garden beds. He gave each student a handful of tiny lettuce seeds.

“Normally, we dig holes and bury seeds in the ground,” Greg explained to the students, “but these are so small, we can just sprinkle them over the dirt.”

After planting, students worked in pairs to carry heavy watering cans across the garden to water their newly planted seeds. The work combined physical exertion with teamwork as students shared the heavy load and then traded off watering.

Students relished the chance to move around after their long day inside. A few jumped from stepping stone to stepping stone yelling, “Parkour!” Another student took a break from planting to approach me and describe her memories of CitySprouts. Last year, she said, they made apple juice!

Different corn allowed to cross pollinate in the gardens.

Different corn allowed to cross pollinate in the gardens.

CitySprouts’ programs run not just during the school year, but into and through summer break. Even during the summer, CitySprouts incorporates academic topics into gardening. Greg explained CitySprouts’ work with The Ancient Grains Project:

“The Ancient Grains Project is a community collaboration. The students learn about the social and historical significance of grain, plant heirloom winter wheat seeds and seedlings, measure their growth and, in the summer, harvest the seeds and turn the grain into food. This summer, we ground the grain, which we used in pizza dough. We also save the best seeds, so that we can grow another crop of wheat the following season.”

Despite all the ways CitySprouts makes the natural world available for education, the students’ enthusiasm is its strongest recommendation. At the end of the first planting session, ten tiny farmers gathered around Greg for a chance to taste mustard spinach. Every child received a bite-sized piece and a wave of reactions flooded the garden. “It’s bitter,” “I like it!” “I hate it!” “I want more!” sounded at once as students nibbled.

One boy had found a different plant he was interested in eating. “Kale,” he said, staring at the greenery, “I LOVE raw kale.” I am impressed. I had never seen or heard of kale before college.

From a single visit to the Haggerty School, the value of schoolyard gardens is evident. Gardens provide outdoor time, a green space, a chance to move around, and unlimited opportunities to tie classroom learning to the natural world.photo 2

After class had finished and the first-graders had lined up returned inside, a woman approached Greg. “My daughter was just given a spot at this school,” she said looking around.

“That’s great,” Greg replied, “It’s a good school.”

The woman explained that her daughter was currently at a school down the road.

“Also a good school,” Greg replied diplomatically.

“Yes,” she replied, “but they don’t have this garden.”

Katherine Pett is a second-year student in the BMN program.  She has still never tried mustard spinach. 

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