Saturday, June 29, 2013

My time (so far) with "Every Child Outdoors" Knoxville

Youngsters learn where their fruits and veggies come from
at the ECO Garden.  Photo by Wendy Prothro-Howard.
Since September of 2011, I have been blessed with the opportunity to work with the wonderful organization "Every Child Outdoors" (Knoxville).  This particular project is funded through the Tennessee Department of Health "Project Diabetes".  The idea is that youth edible gardening will increase kids' knowledge of and affinity for fruits and veggies and encourage physical activity that will offset diabetes and obesity.

About the Project

The grant was awarded to the University of Tennessee's Human Dimensions Research Lab that specializes in survey research.  The HD Lab hired on a crew for the gardening project to write lessons that meet state standards, connect with schools, teach lessons and workshops, construct and maintain a garden, and administer questionnaires.

To fit with the mission of the grant, the project targeted the particularly high risk area of East Knoxville.    Local and national data suggests the residents are predominantly low socioeconomic status, and a great deal of the area's residents are overweight.  When I first joined on, I did a little digital exploration of the area.  A google map search for grocery stores in the area yielded only four results -- two of which I later discovered had closed, and one that doesn't carry produce.  (And yet, as of this year the area pictured will have two dialysis clinics!!)  Perhaps part of the reason East Knoxville is at such a high risk for diabetes is that residents live in something called a "food desert" where they don't have easy access to real foods.

Students learn through gardening at the Knoxville
Botanical Garden's ECO Youth Vegetable Garden.
As it would happen, the Knoxville Botanical Garden & Arboretum is located in the heart of East Knoxville.  KBGA graciously took us in and made their grounds a home for the ECO gardening crew.  Over the past two years, we've worked together to install a youth vegetable garden and fix up an adjacent abandoned building for programs.  Like-minded organizations in the area (especially Keep Knoxville Beautiful and Project Learning Tree) and literally dozens of volunteer groups got involved.  Together our groups were really able to move the needle on development of KBGA's new "Outdoor Explorer Classroom" area.  Today, what had been a somewhat desolate area of the property is a hotbed of activity for field trips, workshops, and visitors.

The gardens are located the epicenter for four of the area's schools.  Over the past two years, three of the schools have welcomed us in for school visits, field trips, "Gardening in the Classroom" teacher training sessions, and assistance in starting their very own school gardens.  In order to meet grant objectives, Austin-East High School signed on for 10 gardening labs specially designed for ecology and AP environmental science classes, and pretest/posttest surveys of garden lab participants and a control group.  

Students plant sunflower seeds in their school courtyard.
Photo by Wendy-Prothro Howard.
Out of all of the schools that we've worked with, Austin-East High School has a particularly special place in my heart.  It was the vision of one ecology teacher that got our entire program rolling in Knoxville.  Her heart and vision for her students led her to contact groups that could help her get started teaching gardening in her classroom.  The end result was the "Project Diabetes" grant being awarded to  UT's Human Dimensions lab to start the entire "Every Child Outdoors" program in Knoxville.  Wow, right?

What I've Learned

It would be pretty sad if I made it through two years of youth gardening without learning anything worth sharing.  Because my position was hort coordinator, I had more experience on the gardening side of the project.

  1. The whole "If you build it, they will come" mentality is wrong wrong wrong!  I'll reference this more in the next few points.
  2. Gardening in the Classroom: Simply building a garden on a school's property isn't going to
    Interest meetings, planning, and training are all important
    considerations when starting a school garden.
    immediately attract classes.  Posting a flier or making an announcement isn't going to do it either.  Having an interest meeting for teachers, students, parents, and the community is a step in the right direction, but still miles away from the destination.  Education and outreach is leaps and bounds more important to a successful gardening program than installation of the garden itself.  It's important to find or write lessons that meet state and common core standards for the grades and subjects taught in the school.  And you can't just give the teachers the lesson or teach the class yourself and expect that to open the magical doorway to gardening in the classroom.  You have to walk the teachers through how the lessons work, maybe teach a class yourself, and assist the teachers the first time they teach the lesson.  Necessity for this stems from the other various pressing demands on teacher time and resources.  Level of involvement will vary based on a teacher's existing gardening knowledge and time availability.
  3. Keep it Growing: Instead of looking at a school garden as a blessing, many administrators view it as a curse.  If a parent or member of the community, a teacher (in specific situations -- more on this soon), or an outside organization wants to put in a garden, any seasoned administrator worth their salt is probably going to shoot the idea down the first time.  Why?  Students grow up, move schools, and their parents go with them.  Members of the community move.  Older teachers retire, and new teachers tend to leave after a couple years.  Outside organizations get new projects that take precedence or lose funding.  With nobody left to maintain it, the site becomes what I like to call a Ghost Garden (scary, right?) .  Ghost gardens are empty, overgrown, abandoned eyesores, and should be avoided at all costs.
  4. Administrator Advice:  If any administrators happen to be reading this, I would recommend requiring these five things prior to approving the installation of a garden on your school's soil: 10 garden lessons that meet state and common core standards for multiple grades and subjects taught in your school, a list of teachers that are interested in using the garden for classes, a detailed monthly maintenance plan, a list of parties that are interested in maintenance, and a rough garden design that includes the size of the garden (smaller is better the first year) and plans for water access.  If any parents, members of the community, teachers, or outside organizations who want to start a school garden are reading this, don't fret.  If you want your garden to be successful after you're gone, you need to put together these five things anyway.
  5. When is a Garden a Community Garden?  My criticism of the "if you build it..." mentality also applies to community gardening, but that's a topic for a different day.  There are gardens that service communities (like school gardens), and there are bona fide true blue community gardens that are built by and for members of the community.  I've never worked with community garden project, so I can't really claim to have any experience in this area.  I have noticed a handful of "community gardens" that have failed in my area, and developed an opinion on the matter.  Eleanor Scott wrote an interesting piece that touches on this in the Metro Pulse last year - "Gardens with a Mission" - that would be worth a read if you have some time.
  6. You Can't Be Everything to Everyone:  Although my primary role was in the garden, I was also involved with teaching kids about gardening, leading field trips, teaching workshops, evaluation, and even writing the occasional lesson plan.  When you work with a small group on a broad project, it is easy to spread yourself too thin.  Don't be afraid to delegate.  It helps to keep your project mission, objectives, and job description in mind when you've got a lot going on.  
  7. Many Hands Make Light Work: The project's school liaison is fond of this saying, and it's grown on me over the years.  A chore can be easier and completed faster if you get help from coworkers and volunteers.  There is no way that we could have built our gardens without help.  You can make something big and beautiful if you're not too proud to ask for a little help.  There are sure to be lots of people and organizations that would love to be involved, even in a small way, with your garden.
  8. The Wind does not Break a Tree that Bends:  Life happens and circumstances may change.  A teacher or parent that's supposed to maintain your garden may move.  Less than half of the teachers that said they were interested in helping the garden may actually get involved.  Plants may die (multiple times).  A lot of the time what seems like calamity at first is actually the opportunity to make positive changes to the project.  Stick with your mission, but don't be afraid of change.
    Girl scouts get their hands dirty with some garden-themed
    volunteer work.  Photo from Wendy-Prothro Howard.
  9. Kids Come First:  This is the last point to make an impact, but it belongs at the top of the list.  Don't get so bogged down in the knitty gritty of the project that you lose sight of the mission.  Remember the kids when you're making the design or writing the lessons.  Leave room for whimsy.  I absolutely hate when a garden lesson is rigid.  You're not in the classroom -- you're outside!  So what if you're supposed to be learning about floral anatomy, and the kids are completely distracted by butterflies?  Butterflies are a part of floral anatomy too!  A healthy garden is about more than just the plants -- it's an entire ecosystem that's full of weird and interesting life-forms.  What's more is that most of the distractions can be tied to state and common core standards (if not the same exact standards) that you were trying to meet in the first place.   For some of the students, this may be their only chance to be outdoors for a while.  So let the kids enjoy being outside!

Next on the Horizon

Thank you to my lovely coworkers for helping me grow
professionally and personally.  I've had a blast so far!
At the end of this month, the project draws to a close.  The new grant will pick up in August, which leaves the garden crew with a month hiatus.  Although I will be checking on the garden through July (what kind of a monster would abandon a vegetable garden in the heat of summer?), I hope to have more time to read, write, plant, explore, and construct.  Be sure to check in to "Plante on Plants" for posts about some fantastic new plants and old favorites, "Thrifty Gardener" for step-by-step instructions on how to create some fun projects to spice up the home and garden, and "Garden Guide" for reviews of the fabulous gardens that I plan to visit this summer.  

Thanks for reading and keep growing!

To see more photos of the "Every Child Outdoors" youth gardening project, check out our Facebook photo albums.

If you have any questions comments, ideas, or suggestions, feel free to post a comment or shoot me an email.

What are your experiences with youth gardening?  School gardening?  What have you learned from the experience?

To learn more about the ECO program and to see some kids in action, skip ahead to 9 minutes and 30 seconds in this "Live Green Tennessee" video.  (They accidentally switched my and my coworker's name and title in this video.)

With some thoughtful planning and a whole lot of help from coworkers, like-minded organizations, and volunteers our site was transformed from an abandoned area to a verdant vegetable garden in less than one year.


  1. This is such a wonderful initiative, to teach and engage kids in gardening and nature, you raise many important points about it takes to make it successful.