The plot quickens: The Children’s Studio School Garden in DC

Those of us who are passionate about local foods tend to use point-by-point logical arguments to persuade our friends and families to support local farmers and food producers: freshness, taste, ethics, environmental considerations, economics, and so on. Children, however, most likely won't care as much about these reasons, though they'll appreciate food that tastes good (unless they're in a picky phase). So how do you get them interested in local food?

As people have discovered through projects like the Edible Schoolyard, involving students in growing, harvesting, and cooking food is the key. School gardens are beginning to crop up in cities, offering even young students the chance to dig in the dirt, plant seeds and seedlings, and learn how food is grown.

In the District of Columbia, a network of school gardens has taken root, and one of the key figures in cultivating these gardens and spreading the word is our friend Ed Bruske over at The Slow Cook. A man of many talents, Ed took his interest in cooking and raising some of his own food on an urban lot and applied it to starting a container garden at his daughter's school, the Children's Studio School. His initial work there led him to become certified through the DC Master Gardener Program (sponsored by the Extension Service), and seeing a need for continued outreach, he co-founded the DC Urban Gardeners with other Master Gardeners as a way to teach and involve others. Ed also serves as chef-in-residence at the Washington Youth Garden (part of the National Arboretum), works with DC Schoolyard Greening, and still has time for occasional catering and freelance writing on top of all that.

On my recent business trip to DC, I took an extra day and asked Ed if I could meet with him, visit the garden, and learn more. Despite his full schedule — my visit coincided with the first ever DC School Gardens Week — he graciously agreed to give me a tour and to answer all my questions.

The Children's Studio School, located in a large red brick school adorned with turrets that somehow fit into the eclectic U Street neighborhood, is a public charter school now celebrating its 30th anniversary. The teachers, all artists in various media, mostly come from developing countries and offer the students a vibrant, culturally diverse atmosphere in which to learn. (For example, teachers are addressed as "Mama" or "Baba" and their first names, revealing a warm Afro-centric familial culture.) The curriculum focuses heavily on art (visual and performing), and the school hosts art shows and other events throughout the year.

A couple of years ago, a few of the school's teachers approached Ed about starting a school garden in the space to the west of the building. (A previous garden, located on a nearby vacant lot, was abandoned when the new owner decided not to invite schoolchildren onto the property.) The concrete-paved space, layered with rubber tiles, provided a blank slate for Ed and a teacher with carpentry skills to design an arrangement of wooden boxes and beds. Using untreated two-by-fours and exterior-grade plywood, they built the containers all of a size to be easily maintained by the children. With a little grant money from small local organizations, Ed planted the seeds for the garden in January 2006.

The containers, filled with a mixture of half topsoil and half compost, hold a wide variety of both edible and ornamental plants. Some of the garden beds overflow with an abundance of tomatoes, strawberries, nasturtiums, basil, thyme, sweet potatoes, and other herbs and produce, and other containers hold zinnias, echinacea, roses, marigolds, and native perennials. One large box holds an apple tree, and Ed noted that he had a peach tree and blueberry bushes coming soon as well.

Over the past year, the garden has seen the benefits of a little additional grant money. Students previously watered the garden by carrying buckets from an indoor faucet out to the garden, but recently an outside spigot was installed and a lengthy hose added to make watering considerably easier. In addition, a hand-cranked composter was added to one corner of the garden so that garden and food waste could be recycled back into the garden as rich soil. (You can even find the composter featured in one of Ed's new online videos on composting.)

While Ed calls himself the "garden manager," he admits that he isn't able to be around the garden very often and relies on the additional work offered by some of the school's teachers and students as well as neighborhood volunteers. Most of the work, naturally, must be done over the summer, but with the school's summer program, he finds that the teachers and students can help him keep the garden going. The school has adopted Ed as one of their own: as we sat and talked, one class came trooping through and greeted him with happy shouts of "Baba Ed!" Teachers enjoy bringing their classes into the garden, both to work in the soil and to appreciate the other garden aesthetics (one teacher uses aromatherapy in the curriculum and has students harvest and dry herbs). The physical aspect of the garden also offers a blank canvas for students: containers become painted murals or mosaics of everyday objects made into art. And Ed has brought the garden into the school with occasional "Salad Days" when the students are able to harvest and eat the greens grown just outside the classroom door.

When asked about his hopes for the garden, Ed had a lengthy wish list, much like any other devoted gardener. He hopes to get more neighbors and teachers involved in the design and upkeep of the garden, continuing to develop and improve it year after year. He would also like to have seasonal plants growing throughout the year: with a temperate climate and only around five hours of sunlight falling on the garden each day, he has already discovered that some vegetables don't work as well in the space allotted. (For instance, cherry tomatoes grow better here than the larger varieties.) He would like to have the garden incorporated more fully into the school's curriculum, involving more children in the growing, harvesting, and eating of their efforts. And, perhaps the biggest dream of all, he'd like to start a second garden plot at the school, located on the east side of the building where a brick courtyard now separates the building from the sidewalk.

None of this can happen, though, without community investment in the program (in time as much as in money), and Ed sees a "crying need in the city for volunteers to work with school gardens," especially in summer. The school garden program is still not widely known, but this year the DC Urban Gardeners established a School Gardens Week, featuring such events as a panel discussion on starting school gardens, a student photography contest, and, of course, food. The District Department of Environment is especially "big on promoting the idea of establishing gardens in schools and developing curricula" to support them, Ed added, because the gardens tie together environmental concerns (watershed protection and water conservation being especially critical in the area) with a growing interest in food and nutrition. But as Michael Kaspar (director of science for the DC schools) noted in the panel event, schools still need to focus on the basics of reading and math, and those interested in developing school gardens have to get creative with their proposals in order to get attention.

For those who have an interest in starting a school garden themselves, Ed stressed the need to find out as much as possible. That research includes:

  • talking to the school principal and teachers and pointing out the benefits of the garden to the school;
  • connecting with the local PTA or neighborhood association;
  • visiting the local library or bookstore for books on school gardens or teaching in gardens;
  • contacting a local gardening group for advice or volunteers; and
  • scouring the Internet for other people's experiences or for organizations that can help (such as the Edible Schoolyard Project, Chef Ann's site, the National Gardening Association, or the Community Gardening Association).

There is no definitive guide to starting a school garden, he said -- "we're still making it up as we go." In addition, he noted, be prepared for the large amount of time involved in starting, maintaining, publicizing, and continuing the garden from year to year -- and get others involved.

The work that Ed and his friends from the Children's Studio School have done in the garden provides a lively burst of color and an inspiring hub of activity in the neighborhood, and though I didn't get to see any students actually working in the garden during my visit, from the work they've already done I could see their enthusiasm for the project. Maybe that's what it takes to get kids excited about local food: bring them into a place where nature and art come together to create beauty and to nurture inquiring minds, and give them the chance to experience food with all their senses, from the garden to the table. Involve them, and -- like the seeds they plant -- in time they could well blossom into the farmers and locavores of tomorrow.

That connection between children and the garden won't grow overnight, and chances are they still won't eat their peas (or whatever "yucky" vegetable they disdain) for a long while. But as the idea of school gardening spreads, we stand a chance of teaching the next generation more than just the dos and don'ts of nutrition: we can share the joy of growing and eating delicious food, and that's an education that can last a lifetime.

3 Responsesto “The plot quickens: The Children’s Studio School Garden in DC”

  1. Ed Bruske says:

    Thanks for that lovely write-up, Jennifer. School gardens deserve the attention and community support. They may be the closest some children get to seeing where food comes from. Establishing school gardens does take a lot of work, and requires at least one person in the school organization--be it a teacher, administrator or parent--who is extremely passionate about bringing this experience to the children. But it can be done.

    Our first-ever D.C. School Garden Week was a big success. I'd just like to point out that this celebration of school gardens in the District of Columbia was initiated by D.C. Schoolyard Greening, a program of the D.C. Environmental Education Consortium.

  2. Thanks, Ed! I'm glad to hear that all the events of the DC School Garden Week were successful. I hope that helped spread the word a little more for all of you. Here's hoping it can be another model for other communities to follow!