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Gardens and learning


Wintry weather notwithstanding, gardens are springing to life! From friends in town who are planting their first four by eight raised bed, to the lettuce and cabbage in Emory and Henry's half acre garden, folks are getting the bug.

It's not just happening in rural communities like ours. The Obamas have decided to plant an organic vegetable garden on the White House lawn, returning to a practice last seen when Eleanor Roosevelt was First Lady. The city of Baltimore plans a 2100 square foot garden on the City Hall lawn, with produce going to local food pantries. And in a recent meeting with Secretary of Agriculture, Tom Vilsack, Food and Society Policy Fellow, Rose Hayden Smith learned of the Secretary's enthusiastic commitment to gardens around the country.

Most interesting of all, hundreds of schools around the country are planting gardens - some known as "edible landscapes" - , much like our own Learning Landscapes in Washington county, Virginia.

So why are so many people returning to this time honored practice now? Of course, some of it is taste and freshness. For other folks, gardens are part of their plan to eat and live in healthier ways, or to be more self reliant.

For me, gardening provides all of those benefits, and one more: It is one of the best teachers I know. In over thirty years of gardening and small scale farming, there has rarely been a lull in the lessons offered. The subject matter is diverse, ranging from ecology and microbiology to math and mechanics (at which I am a C student, at best). The teachers can be stern, like a 19 degree night on Easter weekend, 2007, or they can be generous, like the red wigglers that eagerly transform our kitchen scraps into soft, fertile castings. Always, this gardening "faculty" is relentless in the lessons they teach, driven as they are by the indispensable principles of the natural world.

Schools are adding gardens because they impart skills, reward diligence, provide insights into natural systems and increase physical stamina. Perhaps more than anything else, gardens teach modesty and resilience as year in and year out, you learn what you don't yet know or cannot control. Knowledge of the natural world, practical skills, fitness, diligence, modesty and resilience: I can't think of any standards of learning more urgently needed than these, or a curriculum more effective at teaching them than a garden.