Search form

School Gardens Sprouting in Chicago


Curriculum CenterThrough the Garden Initiative, a three-year-old program in Chicago, horticulture experts collaborate with schools to start gardens in the inner city. Teachers use the gardens to teach lessons in science, mathematics, art, and literature. Students gain hands-on experience caring for plants and learn responsibility.

A tree may grow in Brooklyn, but gardens are sprouting up all over Chicago!

Until a few years ago, gardening and farming were activities few urban Chicago students had a chance to experience. Thanks to a three-year-old school program called the Garden Initiative, which funds flower and vegetable gardens at schools, students help raise everything from tomatoes to prairie grass.

Students learn how to plant and raise gardens, and teachers turn the gardens into more than just science lessons. They also use the gardens for activities in mathematics, art, and language arts.

"Each school uses [the gardens] to fit its own needs," Jeffrey Burdick, a spokesman for the Chicago Public Schools, said.


More Garden Resources from Education World

Have you seen these garden activity resources from the Education World archive?

* Gems from the Garden -- Digging Up Activities for All Ages!

* Grow a Garden of Opportunity!

* Springtime Online!

* Schoolyard Soil Dwellers: What's Living in Your Schoolyard?

* Planting the Seeds of Science!

About 30 schools are now involved in the Garden Initiative, according to Amy Southon, manager of school and teacher services for the Chicago Botanic Garden. The initiative is a collaboration of the schools, Chicago Botanic Garden, Chicago Park District, City of Chicago Department of Planning and Development, Garfield Park Conservatory Alliance, and Openlands Project. It grew out of Chicago's Campus Park Program. This is an effort to increase green space and improve landscaping on city school grounds, according to the Botanic Garden. About 100 of Chicago's 570 schools participate in the Campus Park Program.

Members of the Chicago Botanic Garden staff had suggested, as part of the park program, planting gardens on school grounds for use by classroom teachers, Southon told Education World. "Most schools didn't have any gardens or greenery before."

Representatives from the Botanic Garden help plant and maintain the gardens. Chicago Botanic Garden members develop the gardens in conjunction with leadership teams from the schools. Teachers attend a series of workshops in such areas as planning and designing gardens. They also learn to integrate outdoor education into different subject areas.

Schools with gardens use curriculum programs such as Life Lab, which includes lesson ideas pertaining to areas such as weather, climate, ecosystems, and food chains, and Grow Lab, which features indoor gardening activities for classes.

Participating schools contribute $2,000 for the cost of the program and commit to a three-year involvement.

Melanie Wojtulewicz, the manager of science for the Chicago Public Schools, said helping youngsters get involved with gardening is heartwarming. "I feel like I'm passing on a treasure to teachers and kids," she said. "It's something they can have for life."


Caring for gardens helps students learn responsibility, according to teacher Dana Klapman, who oversees the Garden Club at Darwin Elementary School with colleague Edith Lange. The three-year-old Garden Club is the school's Garden Initiative program.

"I think it really helps [children] nurture living things and appreciate beauty," Klapman said. "It can make abstract thoughts concrete."

The school has seven gardens. One of those gardens is a vegetable garden. Because the majority of the students are Hispanic, students plant the ingredients for salsa, including tomatoes, peppers, and onions, according to Klapman. For the past two years, however, the ripe vegetables have been stolen. "We hope [the vegetables were stolen] by hungry people," Klapman said.

Garden Club members help with the maintenance, and most of the classes integrate garden activities into lessons, Klapman explained. Some of the eighth graders also painted benches in the gardens and were able to get paid summer internships taking care of the gardens.


At Fermi Elementary School, also a K-8 school, teachers try to weave garden activities throughout the school program.

Students in about ten classes from kindergarten through sixth grade work with the school's gardens, according to Shirley Moscato, a kindergarten teacher and the Garden Initiative coordinator at Fermi. "We try to involve [the garden] in the total curriculum," Moscato said. The kindergarten classes, for example, have a vegetable garden. When the kindergartners read the book Peter Rabbit, the students go outside to look at the types of vegetables Peter ate in Mr. McGregor's garden.

Staff and students have worked on a perennial garden. They began a prairie garden this fall, which features native Illinois plants, Moscato said. So far, the gardeners have planted some shrubs and bulbs and will add to the garden in there spring.

The prairie garden will include tall grasses, coneflowers, and day lilies. In the spring, some students will make birdhouses to attract birds to nest in the grass, Moscato added. Teachers also want to establish habitats in the grasses to attract other animals that students can observe.

Community members also participate. One day a week, the school holds a garden day after school for volunteers from the school and for members of the community who help maintain the garden, Moscato noted. A master gardener also demonstrates the kinds of work needed to maintain the garden.

"We're trying to build up a lot of pride in the building," Moscato explained. "The hands-on and practical work with plants is good. There is not a lot of opportunity in the inner city for students to have contact with plants."


Other Chicago schools, although not formally part of the Garden Initiative, also have gardens that they use as part of the curriculum. The largest example is the Chicago High School for Agricultural Science, which maintains the last farm in Chicago.

Students learn about agricultural careers and giving back to the community, Principal Barbara Valerious said. Students glean the fields once a year and give whatever vegetables they find to area food banks.

In the spring, the school plans to start a Plant a Row for the Hungry program. Participants will distribute vegetable seeds to senior citizens and encourage each person to raise one row of vegetables for food banks. Students will collect the vegetables in the fall and distribute them to the food banks. "When you give back, you realize there are people not as fortunate as you are," Valerious said.

At the Northside Learning Center, a special-education secondary school, students practice basic skills and learn responsibility working in a greenhouse and in vegetable and flower gardens. About 120 students are in a greenhouse class, teacher Robert Tadjiki said.

Students practice math skills by counting out seeds, measuring planting depths, and calculating the distance between plants, Tadjiki said. Some also planted 1,400 bulbs outside; other students work on craft projects in the greenhouse.

"For some students, it's very therapeutic," said Tadjiki. "They really calm down when they put their hands in the soil."

Ellen R. Delisio
Education World®
Copyright © 2000 Education World


Please check out our featured theme this week: