Edible Schoolyards


Next week 500 teachers from the Los Angeles Unified School District will pack the auditorium of North Hollywood High School to discuss a tall order from Sacramento: putting a school garden in each of the district’s 915 schools.

This hands-on approach to nutrition, congratulated by everyone from the superintendent of schools to the governor, is most often credited to Alice Waters. The visionary Berkeley chef has, after all, led a movement that has put gardens in 12 of her city’s 17 schools.

But the Los Angeles teachers needn’t look so far as the Bay Area for inspiration. Very quietly, neighboring Ventura County has put together a school garden program that is nothing short of astonishing. Since 1994, it has built gardens in 109 public schools, almost 60% of the county’s total. Not only are gardens planned for every school in the county, there is to be a state-of-the-art agricultural learning center in the Santa Clara valley. It will host field trips and teacher training programs.


That triumph, it seems, has slipped beneath Sacramento’s radar. One state monitor suggests that this may have happened because the farmers, teachers and parents in Ventura County did not go hat in hand to the state for funding. Rather, support came from the estate of a local farmer who once dreamed of being a teacher.

The farmer was Thelma Hansen. Born in 1898, Hansen studied mathematics at UC Berkeley but returned to Ventura County in 1921 and spent the rest of her days on the family farm in Saticoy. Her help was needed with crops ranging from lima beans to walnuts to lemons to apricots.

By 1989, Hansen was 90, her immediate family was dead and she had been targeted as a potential A-list benefactor by her alma mater. She was not, it emerged, easy pickings; at least one inept UC fund-raiser was chased off her property.

However, Hansen eventually took a shine to Larry Yee, head of the local UC Cooperative Extension office. “She was fiercely independent, cantankerous and tough,” says Yee. “She didn’t trust anybody, but once you got to know her, she had a heart of gold.”

Between 1989 and 1992, Yee worked with Hansen designing a trust that would address two of her dearest concerns: education and the future of farming in Ventura.

When her family had moved to Ventura in 1906, it was a wild place where mustard grass had signaled to pioneer farmers the fertility of its valley floors.


As Hansen wrote her will in the 1990s, farming was retreating from the same valleys, supplanted by encroaching housing developments.

The antidote, she realized, was educating the public about the importance of agriculture. So, when Hansen died in January 1993, she bequeathed $12 million to the University agriculture division for, among other things, teaching kids where their food comes from.

Yee’s first step in implementing a notoriously grouchy woman’s vision was inviting the county superintendent of schools, Charles Weis, to join the Hansen Trust board.

Weis has influence but not power. “We at the county don’t have authority over schools,” he says. “Our activities have been persuasion and support.”

Support for teachers interested in starting gardens took the form of three-day training sessions. By 1994, groups of 30 teachers at a time being shown how to pick lemons or touring fruit packing houses became common sights in Ventura.

Sheri Klittich is program administrator for the trust. Out of each group of 30 teachers, she says, “half of them all go back and do something. Then five really get inspired and become hard-core advocates.”

To date, Yee estimates that the trust has trained “about 450 teachers.” Once they are trained, the trust supports them with mini-grants of up to $1,000 to build gardens and with a growing variety of training courses.

Today, there are gardens in each of Ventura County’s 22 school districts. No two are alike.

At Blanche Reynolds Open Classroom, a progressive magnet elementary school, the project was led by a group of parents and teachers. The group leader was Beth McGrath, a parent. She became so enthused that she still works with the school developing new gardens, though both her sons have graduated.

They started, McGrath says, in 1995 by simply growing seedlings in portable carts. Today, however, there are landscaped borders and raised beds that are the equivalent of a trip to a natural history museum.

Passersby admiring the exotic palms and Lotus Land begonias are actually looking at a geography lesson. The border planting shifts subtly but deliberately from tropical to subtropical to Mediterranean and finally to desert plants. “We integrated world geography by using an atlas to research the areas of the world where these climate zones exist,” says McGrath.

The same beds reappear in all manner of lessons. Kids are given compasses and told to do navigational plots of the garden. They are introduced to the logic of Latin through plant names. Copies of Shakespeare even came out as one class decided to look up the flowers mentioned in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”

In the arid zone, an art class has been at work. Here stands an ornate mosaic pot bearing a likeness of a butterfly and the names of all the kindergartners who worked on it.

The most hands-on work happens in raised beds positioned outside each classroom. About 20 feet long each, these are like massive tables: big enough for entire classes to gather around and set at the perfect height for the kids to dig right in.

Food is growing in most of the beds, though not all of it for humans. One has a “spider and insect cafe,” where children have planted buddleias and milkweed to attract butterflies, then rigged various platforms to study how the chrysalis is formed.

Other beds have cabbage, lettuce, cilantro and Chinese peas. These will be given to homeless shelters or used in annual meals cooked for parents.

It was another parent, Rita Cook, who solved the problem of what to do with a school garden during summer break. She suggested that they grow wheat. “It didn’t take too much water,” explains McGrath. “When the children came back, they then harvested and threshed the wheat, and each class made bread.”

Debra Callahan, another of the many parents involved with the garden, explains why such activities are so important for her 8-year-old daughter Emma:

“Since I’m a working mom, I don’t have time to do that at home. So if they didn’t do it here, she wouldn’t know where wheat or bread come from.”

At Cabrillo Middle School, the childish glee at squiggling worms is long gone. Here, in the midday eighth grade science class of Alison Maires, enthusiasm is cloaked behind the studied cool of leggy teens in black jeans. Outside, however, there is solid is evidence of a concerted team effort: a terraced garden replete with pond.

Eyeing the terracing, the trust’s Klittich remarks, “Landscaping is a great way to teach math. If you are doing a math problem on paper, it really doesn’t matter if your calculation is right or wrong. If you’re dividing a lot, your calculation counts. Kids know the difference and make the extra effort.”

Though using a garden for teaching is new territory, Maires says inexperience has actually been a plus. “I don’t have to know all the answers. We learn together. If we want to know something, we form teams and research it.”

The kids really get inspired by ecology. “We study bees,” she says. “We have to get kids past their bee phobias. They then realize that pesticides are killing off the pollinators.”

But learning about problems facing the environment does not end with concern. Sitting in the garden are trays of seedlings of native coastal plants. “When they take those down to damaged dunes and plant them, it’s really very powerful,” says Maires.

Sure enough, asked to name native plants, the students’ reserve disappears as they reel off plant names: coyote brush, sticky monkey, Russian thistle, silver beach burr, red sand verbena, sea rocket.

If the elementary school kids marvel at nature, and the middle school teens become roused to protect it, by high school, thinking turns to how best to make money from it. The kids working a quarter acre at Pacific High, a continuation school, have careers on their minds.

For 11th grader Brian Torres, that dream career is landscaping. This makes a change from earlier activities that landed him in a spot of trouble. Ordered by court to donate $100 to charity, he gave it to his school.

His teacher, Paul Belgum, instantly put it in the garden, in Torres’s own patch. Torres works in the garden during a 50-minute class a day and plans to return after school.

“We’re going to have a double pathway,” says Torres. “The three stones are traditional Japanese arrangement. We’ve got a book on that. We like the Japanese look but we’re also going for the desert look. Then there will be ornamental grasses. And raised beds for the tomatoes because the roots go way down.”

Just now, his patch is little more than an unused corner of a rock-hard playing field. Torres and classmates Garrett Harmon and Jeremy Anderson have their work cut out digging up established Bermuda grass. But the boys are motivated. “We’re trying to grow produce because we’re going to sell it at the farmers market,” says Torres.

The gardens even wash the stink of wholesomeness off a subject that usually sends teens racing for the golden arches: nutrition. Belgum’s approach to teaching it was a free-for-all meal of healthy stuff. “Last summer we brought out a camp stove and just told people to go find food,” he says.

Amazingly, though free food sits on the vine, the garden has no fence. In a year, it has only once been vandalized. A mural was covered with graffiti. “The kids were so mad,” says Belgum.

Pacific High’s principal, Trudy Arriaga, wonders if the garden can be used to supply the school cafeteria. Klittich says this happens at other Ventura County schools. Some, she says, are not just serving food from their gardens, they are also using cafeteria waste for compost.

If there is a recurring theme coming from these schools, it is pride.

McGrath says that, since leaving the Blanche Reynolds Open Classroom, both her sons have been honor-roll students. “I think it made them feel like they could succeed,” she says. “That anything could be done.”

Middle school teacher Maires says her students view their county differently. “One of the things with this program, when the kids recognize the native plants, it gives them a sense of ownership and pride. To name those plants for people is really cool.”

At Pacific High, Arriaga explains how students protect the school grounds. “When you plant the seed, you don’t want anyone stomping on your plant.”

Superintendent Weis says the gardens have made stars out of students whose home experience was undervalued in classrooms: children of farm workers. “They were able to bring to school knowledge that put them at the top of the class,” he says.

This anecdotal evidence is backed up by more systematic studies. Gerald Lieberman runs the San Diego-based think tank State Education and Environment Roundtable. In “Closing the Achievement Gap,” a 13-state study conducted by the group, schools with gardens repeatedly out-performed schools without them. Across the board.

Back at the trust’s headquarters, a Victorian farmhouse in 27 acres of orchards and gardens bought with Hansen funds, Klittich shows models of what will some day be the agricultural learning center. This will host school field trips and teacher training sessions.

Upstairs, a picture of the woman who made it all possible, Thelma Hansen, sits in one of the bedrooms. She looks young and pretty. But there is a steely compression about her lips too. This is, indeed, the face of an Edwardian schoolmarm.

She may never have ruled a classroom, but through her trust, she is reaching more than half of Ventura’s 133,324 students every day.


Planting Seeds

There is no doubting the state’s enthusiasm for school gardens, but it has been slow to put money where its mouth is.

Though last October the legislature congratulated the movement by passing a school gardens bill, this did little more than declare it an official Good Idea.

Assembly Bill 1014 concludes, “This article shall be implemented only if funds become available from private donations, special fund money, or federal money, or any combination thereof . . . “

More immediate support for L.A. gardens has come from Mayor Richard Riordan. This Friday, he will deliver grants for 25 new gardens, bringing L.A. Unified School District’s teaching garden count to an estimated 225.

But it also leaves 690 schools to go.

For L.A. teachers under fire over test scores, suggesting that they turn to garden fund-raising may seem an insult.

The UC Cooperative Extension’s Larry Yee sympathizes and thinks Sacramento needs to take a harder look at its priorities. “The focus, it seems to me, is teaching for testing rather than learning,” he says. “What is really special about a school garden program is that it is one of the best methodologies for kids to learn and enjoy learning.”

Yet teachers and parents behind existing gardens also say that organizers need not wait for money. Fund-raising and development, they say, are part of the empowering process that gardens bring to schools. Moreover, all those interested in starting gardens have access to free advice and support.

Here are places to start.

* LAUSD: Teachers, parents and community members are invited to attend “A Garden in Every School Conference,” 8 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., March 4, North Hollywood High School, 5231 Colfax Ave., North Hollywood, three blocks west of the Hollywood Freeway off Magnolia Boulevard. It will include seminars on start-up and teaching with gardens. Places must be booked by Friday. Reservations may be faxed and admission of $10 paid by check or cash at the door. (818) 762-1156. Fax: (818) 762 2617.

* VENTURA COUNTY: Contact the Hansen Trust, University of California, 14292 W. Telegraph Road, Santa Paula, CA 93060. (805) 525-9293. Fax: (805) 525-9204. E-mail:

* ALL DISTRICTS: The California Department of Education concentrates school garden support in a program called Nutrition Education and Training. For start-up information packs and information on grant sources, including new ones expected from the California Integrated Waste Management Board, log on to or phone NET consultant Deborah Tamannaie at (916) 322-4792.