The garden at Washington School will hold delightful surprises, such as this pumpkin patch, when students return to school next week.

Evanston news delivered free to your inbox! 

Something new is cropping up on the curriculum at schools across Evanston: garden literacy.

At Washington Elementary School, beds of lettuce, strawberries, kale and nasturtiums have replaced sections of the lawn. At the Kingsley Green Acres “mini-farm” near the Evanston Ecology Center, young students are up to their ankles in onions, carrots and potatoes this summer. A vacant lot across from Evanston Township High School is becoming a community garden that will nurture fruits, vegetables and native plants for both students and neighbors.

Integrating gardening and education is hardly new. Educator John Dewey promoted the idea of incorporating gardens into schools decades ago.

Yet gardening at school is suddenly hot again, not only in Evanston but across the country. “The school garden movement has taken off,” says Lynn Hyndman, school garden coordinator for Dawes Elementary School, noting the increased number of blogs, websites and symposia dedicated to the topic.

A “perfect storm of concerns” is behind the sprouting of edible gardens at Evanston schools, says Linda Kruhmin, farmer-in-chief for The Talking Farm, an Evanston not-for-profit focused on food and sustainability.

“One of the concerns is food security, coming out of the recall scares. Another is nutrition and the increased rates of childhood obesity and diabetes.  Another is parents’ wanting their kids to have more environmental education. People are looking at their food and where it comes from differently.”

Gardens, it turns out, offer more than a meal. They are also potential classrooms for lessons in everything from science to writing and math to cooking, says Ms. Hyndman. She says at Dawes School, where she founded the garden years ago as the school’s science coordinator, “Every class owns the garden and [gardening] is integrated into every teacher’s curriculum.”

At other schools, the job of cultivating minds by cultivating the soil is just beginning. Parent volunteer Kristin Alexander shows a visitor around the beds of edible and native plants that parents and children created on their own at Washington Elementary School this spring. On a community workday in May, says Ms. Alexander, 100 people showed up to help. Now that the gardens are established, getting teachers to use them regularly for instruction is the next step. Already, though, the special education teacher has “claimed a bed,” she reports.

Evanston Township High School students returning to school this month will find a 5,000-square-foot organic garden going up across the street from the high school’s front door. Grants from the Evanston Community Foundation, Evanston Lighthouse Rotary and the Evanston Garden Club are enabling construction of the Edible Acre Pilot Project on a corner lot that has historically been an eyesore and an unsanctioned outdoor smoking lounge. The community garden is a prototype for a larger one-acre farming effort the high school hopes to undertake. Students from ETHS shop, geometry, architecture, horticulture and culinary classes, plus the student “Green Team,” have already helped design and build the new garden. More classes will be involved in installing and maintaining the lot.

At Twiggs Park, the Kingsley Green Acres mini-farm occupies the site of what may have been a victory garden during World War II. The Talking Farm started the mini-farm last year as a practical demonstration project with 135 volunteers. This spring, after an initial collaboration, Kingsley took over managing the mini-farm, which now includes an approximate copy of the Obama’s White House garden, a “pollinators’ garden” planted by the Girl Scouts and a “three sisters” bed inspired by the Native American practice of growing corn, beans and squash together.

“The more we do this, the more we see the thousand-and-one implications of it,” says Lauren Spain-Bondi, Kingsley parent and the school’s farmer-in-residence. In the garden, says Ms. Spain-Bondi, “kids get excited about food. They realize strawberries don’t just come from a box. You just see all kinds of light bulbs going on in their heads.”

Ms. Hyndman agrees that kids’ relationship to food seems to change once they taste fresh vegetables they have grown. “That’s the transformative moment,” she says. “Kids ask, ‘Why don’t we have food like this in the lunchroom?’”

She recalls the time she served some Dawes students a salad she’d made from strawberries and fresh spinach. One little boy took a bite, then polished off his portion.

“It just doesn’t get any better than this,” he sighed.

Karen Terry is a board member of The Talking Farm. Along with the Evanston Food Policy Council (EFPC), The Talking Farm is committed to ensuring a safe and diverse regional food supply and fostering awareness of healthy food choices. For more information about EFPC, call Debbie Hillman at 847-328-7175.