In Community Gardens, Everything is Coming Up Roses

A garden makes its own social center where we learn easily from one another how good food can taste, how sweet sunshine can be when captured in vibrant produce,” said Tufts biologist and avid gardener George Ellmore.

Here on campus, Tufts’ own student garden is currently growing behind Latin Way, in the big plot full of greenery where Somerville residents can come plant seeds in their free time. Though our student garden is still relatively new, gardens on campus are no recent trend.

Next time you’re in Tisch Library, take a look at the black and white photos that line the wall heading to the microfilms and periodicals. A picture of the student gardeners of the Tufts 1918 War Garden hangs as a relic of Tufts gardens through the years. War gardens, called victory gardens, were even more popular during World War II and appeared in American backyards, public spaces, and college campuses, supplying 40% of the nation’s food. As the war came to an end and the government adopted quantity-first food policies, victory gardens dwindled and disappeared.

Now, a half a century later, community gardens are multiplying and expanding. Schools and organizations around the country are developing innovative and exciting ways to cultivate vegetable gardens, integrating growing food into course curriculums and school programs.

School gardens have taken off recently for many reasons. The industrial food sector has gained more control over most food production, thus many people are now turning to gardening in order to have a hand in what they consume. Many parents and students feel safer eating fresh, local, and organically grown foods.  Others praise these gardens’ ability to teach students the importance of experiential learning and enjoying the outdoors. Helping students lead sustainable lives is also a draw in this climate of growing environmental concern.

The Edible Schoolyard at the Martin Luther King Middle School in Berkeley, California is one of the first and most famous school gardens and was started by esteemed chef Alice Waters and the Chez Panisse Foundation in 1996. The one-acre garden is supported by an unprecedented program that takes kids out of the classroom and into the beanstalks to learn how to grow in and out of the classroom. History classes teach about Native American heritage while students  plant the “three sisters” (squash, beans, and corn) in the garden. Academic material is transformed into interactive study thereby allowing kids to learn the science behind growing. Edible Schoolyard has become a model for elementary and middle school garden programs across the country.

Closer to home, non-profits Groundwork Somerville and CitySprouts maintain gardens at all of the elementary schools in Somerville and Cambridge, respectively. Instead of inventing a new curriculum like the ambitious Chez Panisse Foundation, these local organizations work with teachers to integrate their gardens into the existing school day. Both organizations run summer programs for middle-schoolers. The students are offered stipends in return for their hard work. Many Tufts students have been involved with these grassroots groups. Senior Emily Stark was a Summer Fellow with CitySprouts in 2009, working with middle school interns. “Seeing kids loving and learning to grow food was a reassuring and powerful experience,” she said.

CitySprouts was founded by a concerned parent, but many gardens have emerged out of student concerns and activism. Started by the local non-profit The Food Project, the Real Food Challenge is a US-wide university campaign to get 20% real food—food which is locally grown, fair trade, and ecologically sound—into dining halls. As a part of their respective Real Food Challenge campaigns, student gardens are growing at Boston College, Mt. Holyoke and Brandeis University.  Students in George Washington University’s Food Justice Alliance maintain raised beds that supply produce to a local soup kitchen and they just bravely launched an urban beekeeping initiative.

Other university gardens have been started for more academic reasons. Here at Tufts, the birth of our student garden will coincide with the practical component of the Experimental College course Emerging Alternatives in Modern Agriculture.  Last year, two dedicated ECO (Environmental Consciousness Outreach) officers (yours truly and recent grad Yosefa Ehrlich) sectioned off a plot and convinced two qualified Friedman School students to share some of their graduate school and gardening wisdom with us hungry undergrads. The class filled up in less than 15 minutes after registration opened. Although the plot, located behind Latin Way is small, there is potential for growth as the class pumps out aficionados.

“Tufts’ gardening projects in Massachusetts, the Bahamas, Hawaii, France, and most recently Namibia bring people together across generations to talk, plan, dream, and plant the garden,” says Professor Ellmore, “Across those same generations: children, parents, grandparents, their friends, and visitors delight in caring for the garden, dodging the weather, watching sun-fueled growth of the purest food possible.”

More than curriculum enhancers, school gardens are a proactive way for students, teachers, and organizations to reshape our food system. Perhaps in a matter of time, small plots like Tufts’ own will be feeding as many people as the victory gardens of yesteryear.  Until then, the garden will be a place to connect with others, learn about the Earth and share good food. O

Signe Porteshawver is a senior majoring in Biology. Follow her sustainable eating blog at

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