Cycling is a pandemic-pastime I adopted. One of my favorite rides is a nearby Coombsville loop that takes me past three elementary schools and one middle school with a garden. One of the gardens I pass on my ride is where I first led garden-based lessons with kids two miles from my home. At the time, I was just entering a doctoral program with intent to research the role of language in science classrooms. I took a side gig as a garden educator at a small school where I worked with 150 K-3 students three mornings every other week. By the end of the 2010-11 academic year, I was fixated on investigating the history and utility of garden-based learning in public education and the rewards (and pitfalls) of school gardens.
Ten years after my first stint as a garden educator, the school that formerly occupied the campus is no longer in operation. It was closed last year due to declining enrollment and budget deficits, two commonly cited challenges facing many public schools and districts in California. The campus remained shut for a year, but this summer it became the most recent host to the last charter school left standing in Napa County: Stone Bridge School (SBS). This is the fourth move for SBS, even though they thought they had been granted a permanent location a decade ago (See History of Stone Bride School).
SBS boasted a robust vision for farm education, which became a reality when they moved to a large property in Carneros in 2011. Sadly, the property where they built their vision was situated atop the fault line that was the epicenter of a 6.0 earthquake that rocked the Napa Valley on August 24, 2014. With their move to the latest campus, they left behind “1.5 acres of organic vegetable crops, three acres of wine grapes (chardonnay), a 50+ collection of fruit trees, chicken egg-laying house with 45 ladies, 3 honeybee hives, and a Farm Lunch program” (About Stone Bridge School Farm & Vineyard).
Given how hard they worked to turn their vision into reality, it was a shock and awe moment when I rode past their new campus–also the birthplace of my school garden obsession– to witness a landscape devoid of the infrastructure it once had. Irrigation tubing and gopher wire stuck haphazardly out of the ground where raised beds were newly rebuilt just a few years earlier.
Since I first started investigating garden-based learning as part of science education, I’ve learned that gardens remain largely unprotected spaces on school grounds, often subject to neglect, contempt, or demolition. In 2018, for example, a garden where the UC Master Gardeners of Napa County had installed irrigation and pollinator habitat was razed to make way for construction upgrades to the campus. They have yet to regrow their garden. Another school moved their vegetable garden to a more visible area and transformed their old garden to a native plant garden, but when schools closed due to COVID-19, they stopped paying their garden educator and the garden was overrun by weeds. Similarly, the school where I offered the Dirt Girls program was off limits throughout the last eighteen months. Whether formally interviewing teachers or informally networking with them, I’ve heard numerous stories of school garden dreams deferred and budgets seized, so it was disheartening to see what had become of a once thriving garden.
And yet, the last time I cycled past the campus on Coombsville Avenue, I saw evidence that a transformation was in the works. The soil had been reshaped and planted and a stack of straw wattles was standing on the property. Then, about a week later, I received a photo via text message from the garden educator. I was immediately reminded that having a robust vision builds resilience. I sincerely hope that the ingenuity and positive approach taken by the SBS garden educator will be replicated elsewhere.
My even greater hope is that more schools and districts will embrace the value of learning outside because of how it sustains attention and transfers to classroom learning. School gardens have the power to engage students’ senses, heal trauma, expose them to nature, support brain development, and foster curiosity. When done with the support of the whole community, school gardens also make campuses feel safer and more inviting to families.
Just as having more time at home allowed me to take up cycling, the coronavirus pandemic overall has exposed several silver linings. Perhaps of most interest to school garden educators is the dire need to develop a robust vision to build resilience going into the future.