About the Author

Larry Volpe is a 5th grade teacher at Daniel Lairon Elementary School in San Jose, CA, and was the recipient of C&NN's 2010 Natural Teacher Award. He also leads frequent trips with Sierra Club's Inner City Outings.

The Benefits and Joys of the School Garden

I started teaching 5th grade nearly 15 years ago. In that time, I’ve done a lot of gardening with my students. Nothing gives me more joy than to spend time gardening with the kids and their families. Over the years it has allowed me to form very special relationships with the community I serve. Many children are tireless and cannot get enough. These kids can apply this hard-working ethic, which many get from seeing their folks working in our garden, to many life skills, including succeeding in school.

I teach at Daniel Lairon Elementary School in San Jose, CA, in a low-socioeconomic neighborhood made up mostly of Hispanic immigrants. When I started teaching I quickly noticed that the non-English speaking, immigrant community I served was reluctant to come to school. I had very few parents coming to Back to School Night, and even less would come to various other school functions. Working in the garden has changed this to the extreme. When other teachers get fewer than ten parents coming to Back to School Night, I now get close to twenty. Parents coming to school are extremely important to the academic success of the child. Gardening with my students is one of the activities that has allowed me to become a more effective teacher.

What started with a few tomatoes and has bloomed into over a dozen varieties of organic heirloom tomatoes. Summer is filled with watering, caging and caring for the plants so that they produce loads of luscious fruit for the families once school begins. Working in the garden over the summer gives the kids something to do and it allows me to stay in touch with some kids whom I love dearly.

Once the harvest begins, so does the feast. The kids get great joy from eating the tomatoes right off the vine. Most of them have never seen so many colors and sizes of all the different kinds of tomatoes. They love to compare and choose their favorite kinds. Many kids bring home tomatoes to meet their families’ needs and they use them in their traditional dishes. Some parents show their appreciation by sending back fresh salsa for the teacher to enjoy. If I am lucky they will send me some enchiladas. The best part comes when they invite into their home to share a meal. This is by far the best part of my job! While there, I bond with the kids, help them with homework and ask the parents to show me how they make their homemade salsa. The tips I have witnessed in the culinary arts of cooking with tomatoes the Mexican way is such a beautiful thing.

Currently the winter crop is in full swing. We have planted so many things. Over the years of gardening I have learned the two veggies kids enjoy most snacking fresh from the garden are peas and carrots. Who would have ever thought? Well we have red, yellow, white, purple and orange heirloom carrots growing. I know that the kids will be extremely excited to once we start harvesting these beauties. We are also growing about 12 kids of garlic, broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, beets, spinach, at least a dozen kinds of leafy greens and more.

The kids never get enough. Our school has over 700 square feet of raised plots and not a single teacher uses them. So, what else to do but plant them all with my own students? Whether it’s pulling weeds, adding compost, layering mulch or watering…there is always an endless supply of little ones wanting to help out. The two favorite activities are turning the soil and planting. And, of course, everyone loves harvesting, eating right out of the garden, then taking home the rest.

I first gardened with a friend’s grandfather, and it was a very special part of my early childhood. I helped Mepa with the tomatoes, basil and peppers and trace my love of growing food to these early experiences with Frank and his grandfather. I think my students are also getting this kind of exposure in our garden. The health benefits of physical labor coupled with eating fresh produce will hopefully help them form lifelong healthy habits.

Our garden is 100% organic, and I emphasize this daily through our conversations of the health benefits not only for them when growing organic, but for the planet and all its inhabitants as well.  Turning the soil, playing with it and getting to know it up-close shows the kids the joy of dirt and brings them closer to the earth that sustains us. Then there’s the critters. There isn’t a day that goes by where I am not informed of every worm, sow bug or spider that they encounter. We also conduct surveys and so do research on the butterflies, bugs, bees and pests that we find in the garden.

I would not give up my position in the community for anything. It is a very fulfilling part of my life. I look forward to many more years of gardening with my students and sharing the food and culture with their families.

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  1. Catherine says:

    Your school garden sounds wonderful! I am in the process of planning one for my school and have a question. What do you do about the seeds planted in spring (like tomatoes and peppers) that don’t mature until summer when the kids are gone? I wish they could see and taste and harvest the final product of their labors, but don’t know how to accomplish that. When they return to school in August they’ll have moved up to another class in another grade. Thanks!

  2. Hi Catherine,
    I have helped to start several school gardens. What some schools do is have teachers collaborate so that every 5th grader knows that when they come back to school the get to harvest the tomatoes they planted in 4th grade because the 5th grade teacher will do a unit on tomatoes with the kids as soon as school starts. You can arrange a planting schedule according to how many teachers want to collaborate. The bigger challenge is establishing a summer watering schedule with parents and kids willing to come in to work in the summer to keep everything going. Good luck with your efforts!

  3. We were faced with the same issue. (We sell a complete science curriculum and companion garden delivered to the school). We ended up sticking with crops that can be harvested in 10 – 12 weeks like snow peas and lettuce. But I want to do tomatoes! So maybe we will try this. Thanks so much Illene!

  4. Catherine:

    My company designs and installs gardens for schools. We have several schools that do what Illene mentioned (one school calls it a “Legacy Garden”) and it really creates a nice bond between the 2 classes. In terms of a summer watering schedule, our system takes care of that by having a built in irrigation system that operates on a timer (the garden requires very little supervision over the school break). We have found that schools in the northeast can usually get 3 planting cycles in each year. Good luck and feel free to contact us with questions.

  5. diane bowe says:

    Hi Larry…your story is certainly inspirational and illustrates the wonderful aspects of getting ones hands dirty in a garden!
    Have you heard of http://www.earthbongo.com? We’re trying to make the world a better place through projects just like yours. Check us out!

  6. Mike Barlow says:

    What a cool story! It is exactly this kind of leadership that our schools need.

  7. Your school garden sounds amazing! So great you’re getting kids involved. You might be interested in my article about affording an Ivy League education. I wonder if it might inspire some students if they knew that any family making $60,000 or less can go to Harvard for FREE if they get accepted! And any family making $180,000 or less may only have to pay 10% of their income.

  8. Bridget Cross says:

    I just started a school garden also. We have our school wide planting day on Friday, we have 12 raised beds. It has been quite and adventure so far due to the unpredictable weather here in southeast Louisiana. I’m actually writing my thesis on the environmental and nutritional attitudes/behaviors of children involved in a school gardening program. I hope it encourages more vegetable consumption as well as nurturing the environment. We’ll see!

  9. Larry says:

    I enlist the help of a few parents to water over the summer and take home anything that ripens. The harvest goes well into the next school year, so the cycle goes…school year starts, reap the harvest of the previous year’s students then in Spring they do the same, plant many things for the next year’s kids. The kids in 6th are always welcome and invited to come after school or at lunch, when we do all our garden work, to continue to help in the garden. The next grade up is only right next door.I do no teaching in class that is centered on the garden…it’s all fun and if any kids are interested we research pollinators, pests, etc. after school.

  10. Ivan says:

    Dude when I saw the garden for the first time after being away from the school for so many years I was amazed. When I was in your class there was only a few plants. I remember that your class was the only time I ever set foot into that garden, EVER, and I remember it was pretty fun. It was cool seeing how much it changed and how many different plants there are, it was also cool that many of the plants were California natives.

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