Responding to the School Garden Debate

Responding to the School Garden Debate

by Lisa Bennett

Spinach in the Garden

"Cultivating Failure," the Caitlin Flanagan article that lambastes school gardens in the January/February issue of the Atlantic, pits the more advantaged in our society against those desperately counting on school to help them raise themselves out of poverty. And this beckons the reader into the terrain of charged emotions, where it can be challenging to separate the angst from the facts on this issue. But separate them we must.

In truth, the first time I read Flanagan's article, I too felt a momentary paroxysm of worry. Were school gardens actually robbing our most vulnerable students of more basic and important learning experiences?

With this and other questions in mind, I called Michelle Ratcliffe, one of few people in the United States who has a doctorate in agriculture, food, and the environment.

"She's right about two things," said Ratcliffe. "One is that not everyone learns from experiential place-based education," which is one of the things that happens in school gardens.

"The other thing is that school gardens are not a fringe element anymore but are becoming a social norm," said Ratcliffe, farm-to-school program manager for the Oregon state Department of Agriculture. There are, as Flanagan cites, already nearly 4,000 school gardens in California alone and many more nationwide.

But what about Flanagan's main point — or, rather, the rationale on which she rests her criticism of school gardens: that there is not a shred of evidence that spending time in a school garden helps students advance academic achievement? "She is so wrong about that," said Ratcliffe, echoing the sentiment of numerous other experts who have been writing on the subject in recent weeks.

The new Center for Ecoliteracy essay, "The School Garden Debate: To Weep or Reap," provides a look at the research. (See link under "Related Content" in the righthand column on this page.) We also invite you to share your comments here.



23 comments posted

School Gardens

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on Wed, 2011-03-16 13:20.

For those who are interested, there is a great article outling some of the statistics here:

old argument

Submitted by Kirke (not verified) on Thu, 2010-05-06 08:58.

Flanagan raises a concern spoken to by John Dewey in 1944 and certainly many, many others before and since. I would also like her to come to the farm-to-school program I run in Colby, WI and sit in on a couple lessons and tell me I am not imparting knowledge needed to transcend poverty. Then she can explain to me why vegetable growing knowledge alone wouldn't help this community where 1) nutrition is lacking despite almost all residents having space for a garden in his/her yard and 2) the farms are not diversified to the point of extreme vulnerability to market fluctuations like the dairy dip over the last couple years or the ethanol bust which seems looming due to the subsidy dependence of that industry. Anyway, here is the Dewey quote:

"Gardening need not be taught either
for the sake of preparing future gardeners, or
as an agreeable way of passing time. It affords
an avenue of approach to the knowledge of
the place farming and horticulture have had
in the history of the human race and which
they occupy in present social organization.
Carried on in an environment educationally
controlled, they are means for making a study
of facts of growth, the chemistry of soil, the
role of light, air, moisture, injurious and
helpful animal life, etc. It is pertinent to note
that in the history of man, the sciences grew
gradually out of useful social occupations.”


Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on Wed, 2010-02-17 13:26.

Has anyone taken the factual and affirming argument to Atlantic and get them to publish the ecoliteracy reply?


Submitted by lisa on Mon, 2010-02-22 14:15.

Thanks for the suggestion! We did submit our response to The Atlantic. 

-- Lisa 

You can lead a horse to water....

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on Wed, 2010-02-17 11:19.

I think the second reply to this article submitted by "any" speaks most to the heart of this issue. I have worked in the public schools for the last thirty years, mostly as an educational psychologist. The point that we are missing is that we have a school population of students who are rapidly becoming more disengaged, bored, and unmotivated. The educational research of Mihály Csíkszentmihályi states that educators need to spend a majority of their time demonstrating to students the relevance of the material they are teaching rather than trying to force feed them information that we generate better test scores. Csikszentmihalyi did research on the essential ingredients of human "happiness". He found that humans enjoy striving toward their own improvement more than any other activity. However, something has happened in our public schools where the joy has been removed from learning -- thus the disinterest in learning. Nothing puts the relevance and the joy back into the learning experience like contributing to the greater good of the community (and the planet), place-based education, outdoor learning and school gardening. Once this foundation is re-established perhaps we can teach the three "r"s.

So the temperature is rising

Submitted by Paul Clarke (not verified) on Sun, 2010-02-14 10:34.

So the temperature is rising for those of us who are trying to establish a link to a sustainable food related way of living and being. Never mind the details and technicalities of the debate in the US, this is a global challenge.
Congratulations on stirring the pot guys! It is a sure fire thing to know we are on the right track when people start to try and smash us down.
In our project incredible-edible we have just as many home grown contenders for the 'Flanagan rebuff' crown, our approach is to politely remind them of a few home truths...her article reminded me of that challenge - the need to be focused and clear headed while all around others lose theirs.

I think what lies at the very heart of the problem, is when we focus on education that is driven by ego, people simply cannot make the connection to the eco. All the weaknesses of the 'Flanagan' critique stack together as a complete failure to understand what is happening and why. We might just respond by asking - Where are their great solutions? where are the more equitable societies? where are the health benefits? where are the opportunities for people to live more worthwhile and fulfilling lives, where is the economic growth and economic gain, what are they doing to ensure that there is a degree of hope for the next generation and not a wilderness of despair? where is their great education reform leading them?
In then end my feeling is that we do the natural thing, we refocus on the strength of diversity, we use the arguments to enhance our own, dig deeper, literally and metaphorically, we generate examples everywhere we can and we connect together and grow ever stronger. Solidarity brothers and sisters. Love from Paul, Incredible Edible Todmorden, England

Flanagan School Garden Article

Submitted by Any (not verified) on Fri, 2010-02-12 09:35.

The gal who wrote this must not live in the same CA as I do. We are in an fairly affluent burb of San Diego and my child is being dumbed down, ie, no critical thinking is being taught and he is bored to death with the endless stream of worksheets used to "teach to the tests". The magazine editor appears to not have done their job in culling this article to sensible discussion.

Growing students that are ready for life

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on Fri, 2010-02-12 08:28.

It seems our country has been so focused on math and reading scores that we have forgotten that educating children is all about preparing them for life. Certainly academic achievement is part of that process, but so are the so-called "life skills" that seem to have been stripped from most school systems because of a lack of funding.

While we feel like we've hit a brick wall with health care reform, we seem to miss the basic point that if we taught people how to eat better food they would be healthier and by default our health care costs would decrease. This is a life skill and shcool gardens can help.

I know firts hand that school garden projects help kids think about eating healthier - I teach cooking classes to kids in school garden projects across the Denver area and I see first hand how they try new vegetables because they grew them themselves, then eat new and healthy foods because they cooked them themselves. This life-skills education is as important as math. As a college graduate (a biology and political science double major) I can tell you I use the practical skills I learned along the way much more to be successful in life that I did any of the technical skills I learned. And I can say that with emphasis after having spent 25 years in the high tech industry. I didn't succeed because of my technical skills, I succeeded because of my well-rounded skills.

I'm not saying we should allow our school children to slip through the cracks with literacy problems, but rather that we need to look at everything on balance, and unfortunately the article in the Atlantic failed to do so. Thanks for a solid rebuttal to the piece.

For the Love of Worms!

Submitted by Camila Wren (not verified) on Thu, 2010-02-11 14:46.


Thank you so much for your knowledgeable and well-cited response to the Atlantic article. It unmistakably shows the difference between meaningful journalism and reactionary, unsubstantiated print. Caitlin Flanagan's title, "Cultivating Failure" speaks precisely to the line of reasoning her article presents in the face of a critical and looming question regarding food and health.

I ask – How did we get here?

How do a vast number of Americans not realize how or where their food comes from? Or how much of what is put into mouths daily is toxic, deleterious to natural resources which are essential to the health (= wealth) of our nation? It should go without question that resources such as topsoil and clean water should be of topmost priority for maintaining health on a personal, as well as national level, as it is reflected in our economy.

The cost of environmental degradation and physical disease to individuals has spun far into serious crisis in our nation. And what about the enormous amount of food that is processed and delivered via centralized systems? Shouldn't we care about food security? What happens if a populace finds itself uneducated and unable to cultivate healthy, nutritious and sustainably produced food should centralized food systems be compromised? Why haven't any of these issues been addressed by our national leadership since the day of Victory Gardens?

Here is another simple word that can unpack into vast regions of investigation regarding food and its essential connection with environment, externally and within our bodies/psyches. The word for why we as a nation have allowed the environmental degradation and destructive agri-business farming practices to prevail is "disconnect."

With the rise of industrialism, our populace has moved toward a degraded sense of values regarding what is essential in a physically and mentally well society. Evidence of violence, mental illness and degenerative disease in the US is vast in comparison to parts of the world where people live more closely and in accordance with natural systems.

The disconnect from our Earth that nourishes us must be healed. The species die-off and climate change we are witnessing now can not be positively addressed by the same "business as usual" policies we have accepted for too long. Gardens provide innumerable social health and education benefits, as has been abundantly stated through the ages. Through gardens, we reconnect with our planet in a very fundamental and essential way - we do need to dynamically engage with our life systems.

In every way possible, including school gardens, we need to re-establish social values that are based in the restoration of our natural systems for the cultivation of thriving life everywhere on Earth. Healthy change will not come from continued participation in unbridled consumerism, the stress of perpetual monetary indebtedness and blindness to the disconnect those systems have caused between people and the force for life that exists within each one of us.

There is a special feeling that comes from successfully nurturing life into being that, in turn, also nourishes us. To learn what essential gifts to life are provided by the "lowly" worm or the culture of pollinators is to gain a sense of reverence and awe for all life systems. The simplest garden provides the opportunity to realize the complexity of all life systems and their interconnectedness. From time in a garden, the child in each one of us learns something that reaches far beyond basic "readin' writin' and 'rithmatic."

For that matter, so does time spent with art, literature, athletics, music and social studies. May the Atlantic stay hands-off with reactionary reportage on those subjects, please! Instead, please promote some real investigative journalism.

Please give equal time to report on the love of worms and why we wouldn't be at all hurt by providing a Valentine's gift of crushed eggshells* for your favorite garden's compost pile or kitchen worm bin. From a topsoil perspective, we want worms, lots of them. So go on out and love some worms!

*For worms, the calcium in eggshells can be considered an "aphrodisiac." No painted hearts needed ;)

Music and art aren't

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on Thu, 2010-02-11 13:30.

Music and art aren't meaningful to every single child; yet they are to many and we adults feel it's worthwhile to expose all children to their potential joys. So too with gardening, a major gateway to the natural world for most children and a real leader in getting kids interested in science. A child gets the benefits of art in a garden by working the soil, interacting with creatures and growing plants, and seeing how the sunlight and rain work their magic. Bees buzz and birds sing and children laugh. Now isn't that music? Don't we learn counting and rhythm from poking holes and planting seeds and multiplication and division from planning those rows?

Not all children will enjoy gardening. But isn't one point of education to expose children to the natural world around them? To help them find their place in it? Sports, music, art, and, yes, gardening outdoors all offer a child the opportunity to experience the world immediately,in a different way from a book, which , as good as the information it imparts may be, is, after all, derivative, someone else's experience. Should we need intellectual justification more than simple curiosity, gardening and other extracurriculars offer a child a different perspective on the use and meaning of all those "basic" skills and the opportunity to put them concretely into practice.

My own experience (as a child and granddaughter of gardeners) is that my own gardening has led, in part, to one gardener-daughter, also a PhD chemist; a son who calls to find out how to "cook healthy" and another daughter, who is writing her thesis on the international cultural implications of food.

Cultivating Healthy, Lifelong Learners

Submitted by Deborah Moore, Green Schools Initiative (not verified) on Thu, 2010-02-11 12:53.

Thank you, Lisa and CEL, for a well-researched and reasoned response.

Green Schools Initiative believes that project-based, place-based, experiential learning is key to a well-rounded education that prepares our children for the green economy and sustainable future we are working to create. While I value debate, I think that we could better spend our energy advocating for funding for education, fixing our school facilities, and training better teachers.

We too wrote a response to the Atlantic article:

Article Response

Submitted by Michael Primm (not verified) on Thu, 2010-02-11 12:30.

I am not a formal educator. I am the Director of Service and Volunteers at The Green School of Baltimore. I too disagree with Ms. Flanagan. I also believe her view is too narrow and under-informed.

I see the daily benefit of using the environment as an integrating context for learning (EIC) in education and the positive impact it has had on Baltimore City students, families, and the environment. One responder aptly points out that experiential–based education may not work for everyone. Baltimore City is relatively small geographically, 6 by 6 miles or so, and its Charter Schools are schools of choice which provides families a wide range of academic approaches to choose from for their children.

I also see the daily benefit of engaging our parent volunteers in supporting and enhancing education at the school. By inviting parents in during the school day to help with the garden, or recess, or in the dining room, or Science Friday, or Mangia Monday, or Art, or Music; not just for after school clubs and events or field trips, we are able to tap into their professional and life experience they have to share with the students. This broadens perspective and social context.

While Ms. Flanagan is not completely wrong, and Mr. Sizer may not have been too upset with her use of his words, but I believe he may not have completely agreed their use within the narrow confines of her argument. It is truly sad he is no longer with us to weigh in. In the meantime, the students at The Green School of Baltimore have just started their indoor salad boxes, are planning their garden, are counting down the days to plant their sugar-snap peas, and are looking forward to popping the popcorn they grew last year. EIC and experiential- based learning does not cheat our students. I would argue that they, and our entire community, are better for it. To see what we are doing in Baltimore visit us at and

Warm regards,
Michael Primm

The Garden, A Master Teacher

Submitted by John Fisher (not verified) on Thu, 2010-02-11 10:56.

Long before Alice Waters gummed her first bite of solid food educational experts had been hailing the value of the garden as an instructional tool. My favorite is from George Washington Carver: "The garden furnishes abundance of subject matter for use in the composition, spelling, reading, arithmetic, geography, and history classes. A real bug found eating on the child's cabbage plant in his little garden will be taken up with a vengeance in his composition class. He would much prefer to spell the real, living radish in the garden than the lifeless radish in the book. He would much prefer to figure on the profit of the onions sold from his garden than those sold by some John Jones of Philadelphia."

Caitlin did miss the many reports of research that points to the value of garden-based learning. At Life Lab our staff has voiced their responses to Cultivating Failure and offered a more positive look at school gardens. Check out "A Garden, A Master Teacher" for a historical, anecdotal, and research based essay on the power of school gardening.

John Fisher
Life Lab Science Program

Gadens in Schools

Submitted by Tim Wood (not verified) on Thu, 2010-02-11 08:17.


Thank you for your thoughtful article in response to the article "Cultivating Failure." A colleague sent me both articles and I was a bit shocked by the negative energy harnessed in Ms. Flanagan's article. It felt like a personal attack. I found your article, which was also full of references to research much more objective.

I must confess that I am developing a horticultural program for our school, and found your article very supportive of my philosophy toward education. Children spend a large portion of their lives in school and that experience needs to be more than a preparation for a standardized test, or preparation for high school, or a means to get into college. It needs to be a fulfilling experience in it self. It needs to address the entire child and prepare them for life in the world. I find many problems in the world around us and uniformed citizens can be a significant part of those problems. I want our students to have a holistic view of the world they will inherit. A school program that is as varied in its approach to learning, will provide students with varied skills and knowledge which they can apply to the world in which they live, not tomorrow, but today. I also find that students who love to learn, continue to learn throughout their lives. So, my primary goal is to encourage this love. I find the garden the perfect place to encourage the love of learning, the earth, and for my part the love of science.

Thank you for your informative response to an article that seemed to be based more on emotion than fact. Thank you also for the many links to research that supports the kind of learning in which I love to be involved.

Tim Wood
Coordinator of Sustainability
The College School

no time for science?

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on Wed, 2010-02-10 22:46.

Ms.Flanagan feels that 1.5 hours a week, out of the 30 a child spends in school, is too much time to waste outdoors in a school garden. She feels this hour and a half per week will rob otherwise successful future academics of their right to important desk jobs, nice cars and political influence. According to Ms. Flanagan, this hour and a half per week in the sun, amidst flowers, food, insects and operating cycles of Nature, serves only as a waste of time and reminds immigrant children that their only path in life involves back breaking manual labor. The appropriate course for children, especially immigrant children, Flanagan argues, is to remain indoors, 30 hours a week, given only literary and quantatative instruction, until mass test scores show "our children are learning".

To Ms. Flanagan, imprisoning each generation of curious little bundles of joy, imagination and energy is an act of kindness- simply the decent thing to do. One wonders if Ms. Flanagn values science as a fundamental part of education, especially with global climate change quickly becoming the world's biggest and deadliest problem? One wonders if she values the IDEAS behind great literature; the inspirations of poetry, for instance, like flowers or the feeling of sunshine on one's face. One wonders why the study of Nature means only one thing to Ms. Flanagan- back breaking field work? Do we not have many thriving businesses and jobs centered around food, wine, food distribution, marketing, retail and sales, gardening, landscaping, water safety, plant genetics, plant derived medicines, the study of insects, not to mention farming itself?

Does Ms. Flanagan forsee a world in which only English teachers and mathematicians will be offered jobs, and therefore all children should be trained in only these two areas? Does Ms. Flanagan not know Mr. Albert Einstein's quote (a pretty famous mathematician): "Imagination is more important than knowledge?" Does Ms. Flanagan truly think proper grammar is more important for the world today than reliable, safe food sources?

Is Ms. Flanagan acquainted with any families struggling with a child's drug or alcohol addiction- a tragically common occurence in middle and upper middle class families often associated with a feeling of "disconnectedness" from the natural environment? A pity she wasn't there when, as a school garden volunteer I overheard a first grade boy whisper as he entered the vibrant garden, "...NOW it's a good day!"

Perhaps Ms. Flanagan believes that all American children are potential academics- with only school gardens keeping them from realizing their dreams. My husband teaches at the college level. We believe about 10% of the population is truly academically inclined. Whether or not the American school system will offer the other 90% of our future citizens and leaders alternative, constructive options for their lives, is up to today's leaders. Let's hope Ms. Flanagan's good intentions become a little more grounded in reality.

response to blog and article

Submitted by Dr Paul Roberts (not verified) on Wed, 2010-02-10 15:16.

Congratulations Lisa

I think you have given an excellent and thoughtful response to the article in Atlantic. I'm sure the article was written to be provocative (as some journalists tend to do), but even so it could be quite damaging and misleading. It reminds me of people who want to write articles to deny climate change because they think somehow they are taking some kind of independent stance

with regards Dr Paul Roberts


Submitted by Maria (not verified) on Wed, 2010-02-10 15:01.

Claiting Flanagan shows fear of change, and when we observe the events that are taking place in the world, we think, Can something be worse than this? Yes, keep doing the same thing and you will get the same results. Schools and universities need to focus on the development of the right side of the brain.

As i see it, the garden is not just the garden, it's everything that the garden involves, and that allows children to become whole persons, and also gives opportunities to everychild. No child wants to feel frustrated because he is not good at math, but by gardening he will learn math in a different way, and he will be fulfilled.

We cannot keep on focusing on the left side of the brain alone, we must do things that help children develop the right side of the brain, which brings with it creativiry, innovation, perspectives.

I'm happy and greatful for all of you who are working so hard on turning things around especially with our little ones.
All the best!!!!!!

Natural Succession in School Gardens

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on Wed, 2010-02-10 14:18.

Flanagan's article is so off the mark and outdated that I question whether it is of any use to raise this debate again. But what worries me more is not the distorted perception of the school garden role in curriculum and instruction. It is the lack of alternatives to fulfill what school gardens can accomplish. I don't know any better alternative that can do so much for so little. That is, if teachers are prepared for taking full benefit of this environment, which sometimes is not the case.

It would have been better to write an article inviting teachers for the challenge of learning to educate well with school gardens, rather than unmercifully criticizing those few who have attempted to do so. Instead of picking on school gardens, one should pick on his/her own ways of teaching and orthodoxy. It takes courage to make things better, and wisdom to make the distinction. I wish my kids had the opportunity to learn while working in the garden. Instead, they do have to put up with a lot of hours of repetitive tasks and preparation for the state assessment. It makes me sick.

Hi, Thanks for the

Submitted by Susan (not verified) on Wed, 2010-02-10 13:35.


Thanks for the well-written and thought provoking essay. Do you have the citation for the article you reference in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition? I'd be very interested in reading articles linking school/community gardening with food and healthy lifestyle choices.

Thank you!


American Journal of Clinical Nutrition

Submitted by lisa on Thu, 2010-02-11 12:08.

Dear Susan,

Thanks for your feedback!

The article I referenced was "Dietary Behavior Change: The Challenge of Recasting the Role of Fruit and Vegetables in the American Diet" (Heimendinger, J. & M. Van Duyn, 1995.)

There are also more recent studies on the University of Minnesota's website,

all best,


school gardens

Submitted by Robin Schoen (not verified) on Wed, 2010-02-10 13:22.

I think if teachers know how to use a school garden as a teaching tool, they can use it to teach almost any subject. I find it hard to believe that someone actually took the time to deride the school garden.

responding to the school garden debate - weep or reap

Submitted by Elizabeth Lowe, WellNow! (not verified) on Wed, 2010-02-10 12:51.

We can all heal the troubled American health care system, one bite at a time, one person at a time.

Now, when the national health care system is reeling from increasing budgetary challenges, the encouragement of focused learning about what is healthy food, and where does it come from, can and must be developed in our upcoming generations, at the very location where they spend most of their daytime hours - school.

The connections between food, mood, and learning are well-documented. Children who eat well, learn well, sleep well and retain more of what they learn on a daily basis.

Garden seed companies are raking in the cash, as many Americans are planting gardens, of any size, on their home lots.

Just as in the 1930's, when a necessary response to financial crisis led to more healthy living practices, this digging-in period will bring benefits to lowering health care costs, raising smarter children, as they plant and grow healthy food, and a healthier society overall.

My entire life is devoted to these principles both in the neuro-cognitive educational field and in the preventive health care field. The Atlantic opened a can of worms. Let's release them to where these helpful creatures can do the most good - in the gardens of our schoolchildren.

Elizabeth Lowe
Integrative Health Coach
Newport News, VA

Thank you!

Submitted by Angela McGregor (not verified) on Tue, 2010-02-09 12:15.


Thank you for your thoughtful response to "Cultivating Failure". You have beautifully articulated what so many of us have been feeling--from taking another look at the research to the importance of asking tough questions and continuing the conversation.

You can see our thoughts, along with a gathering of responses (including yours), here:

Angela McGregor
Cornell Garden-Based Learning

Post new comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.
This question is for testing whether you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.

© 2004-2015
Center for Ecoliteracy. All rights reserved.