It has been just over a month since the election as I write this, and nothing feels right, or safe, or okay. The weather has been erratic—a warm day, a sudden freeze, then drenching rain followed by weak sun—but no matter what, I have tried to spend a little time each day with the four small potted plants on my patio and the nasturtiums that are just coming up in a strip of dirt near the recycling bins. It’s not much, but spending half an hour getting dirt under my nails has been the only thing bringing me back to clarity.
As it turns out, there’s science to back up the practice, and gardening might also be a key to learning for young folks. In Growing a Life, author Illène Pevec describes several school gardening programs that have had positive impacts on their student participants and researches why they succeed. At a time when life feels dire, this is a hopeful thing.
The book builds off material Pevec gathered to complete a doctoral dissertation, and as she begins her research, she is surprised by how open the kids are with her. Despite an age difference of 40 or so years, the kids tell her about home lives that include absent fathers and family members lost to illness and violence, and some have their own struggles with mental illness and depression. She notes that one boy lounges in a wheelbarrow while they talk, clearly relaxed.
Pevec asks the students questions about their ability to focus, the sensory details they notice in the garden, and, more generally, how they feel before and after a session among the plants. They enthuse over the taste of fresh vegetables, the pride in seeing food they’ve grown being used to feed the school, and the ways that gardening teaches academic subjects without the dry, hierarchical structure found in classrooms. Students pick up job training in programs that include a sustainable technologies element and take on leadership roles by mentoring newcomers.
The Green Bronx Machine uses rooftop gardens to grow food for the school and community; students have also built living wall installations for different locations around the city. The ¡Cultiva! garden in Colorado’s rural Boulder County also has a greenhouse to deal with the cold and altitude. No two situations are alike; each garden Pevec mentions responds to the environment and community where they’re situated, but the students seem to derive the same benefits from their experiences.
The research Pevec draws from suggests that freedom of movement, exposure to sunlight, and the chance to work with one’s hands all create an optimal environment for learning. Anecdotally, kids raised on junk food in areas with limited access to fresh produce very quickly learn to love salad when they’ve had a hand in its creation. Even the holdouts are willing to work to overcome “the slimy kind of liquid feelings” and try to give okra a fair shake.
Some of the energy of protest we’re experiencing right now is focused on community resilience, the notion that we need to have our neighbors’ backs when it’s clear the government does not. Often, that begins with a shared meal or potluck dinner. Growing a Life offers an affirmation that time spent in the garden may be growing far more than we realize. We should do all we can to make these opportunities widely available, beginning in schools and expanding outward.