Top Five Reads for Growing a Learning Garden

Early in my journey as a doctoral student, I visited the UC Davis Student Farm. Grounded in experiential education, the Student Farm provides hands-on experience in growing organic produce for practical (i.e., “real life”) outcomes. When speaking with the manager of the Market Garden, I inquired about the number of CSA* members they had. I was surprised to learn the answer, the implication of which has never left me. Read on to find out how my aha moment relates to my top five recommended reads for growing a learning garden.

A learning garden is a very different space than a production garden or a demonstration garden. In a learning garden, the primary focus is on promoting active engagement with the living and nonliving material resources that make up the space. The human-nature interaction can be directed, facilitated, or open-ended, but the learning can never be completely defined ahead of time.

Learning gardens on school grounds provide poetic and critical texts for nurturing students’ connection with the more-than-human world (Williams & Brown, p. 18).

This is the beauty of nature-based education: living systems–even human designed living systems–grow and change over time. What captures a learner’s attention may be ephemeral. Learning gardens have a purpose altogether different from production gardens or demonstration gardens.

In contrast to a learning garden, the purpose of a production garden is, well, to produce. A microcosm of a working farm, production gardens focus chiefly on activities related to growing, tending, harvesting produce for distribution. Whether a micro-farm or a food bank garden, the primary goal is to grow food at an operable scale. While there very well may be learning happening, the actors in a production garden are not necessarily encouraged to idly observe what might be happening in the rows of potatoes or strawberries without picking up a pitchfork or a basket.

A demonstration garden offers something slightly different from a learning garden or production garden. This type of site exhibits a variety of horticultural practices that aim to show how to garden a certain way. Although active engagement may occur, the typical demonstration garden displays specific growing methods visitors to enjoy passively. Many demonstration gardens host classes or workshops to explain the various approaches, however, participants spend most of their time maintaining the site. Some demonstration gardens have signs to label or illustrate key features of the garden guide visitors, as is common in botanical gardens and arboreta.

Although learning gardens may include features of a production garden or a demonstration garden, the underlying intent is to promote place-based human-nature interaction in a way that the traditional classroom cannot. Although gardens on school grounds have a long history, the purposes have not always been clearly articulated.

The best use of a school garden is for learning. The five titles below offer unparalleled descriptions of the value of learning gardens in education:

  1. The Pull of the Earth by Laurie Thorp (AltaMira Press, 2005)
  2. Science in the Making at the Margin by Jrene Rahm (Ch. 5, 9, 13) (Sense, 2010)
  3. Learning Gardens and Sustainability Education: Brining Life to Schools and Schools to Life by Dilafruz R. Williams & Jonathan D. Brown (Routledge, 2012)
  4. Beyond Learning by Doing by Jay Roberts (Routledge, 2012)
  5. the learning garden by Veronica Gaylie (Peter Lang, 2009)

By now you’ve started looking up titles and have completely forgotten about the pearl of wisdom I garnered from the UC Davis Student Farm.

When I learned that the Market Garden CSA had only 65 members, I was astonished. I said, “Certainly, in a community like Davis, there is higher demand than that.” The manager confirmed that they could have two or three times as many members, but that in doing so, the primary purpose gets lost. The goal of the student farm is learning, not maximum yield or perfectly tended plants.

Although there are many other titles that tackle the many (many) practical considerations related to maintaining a school garden, when it comes to garden-based learning, my top five books firmly ground the purposes learning gardens in schools.


*CSA=Community Supported Agriculture: the process of buying a “share” of a farm, usually distributed through a weekly produce box, but may also include meat, dairy, or grain shares.

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