Recently, I visited a school garden in one of California’s 10,366 public schools. A young teacher brought her class out to prepare a bed for planting, and the kids were hard at work pulling overgrown weeds from the soil. The 4th Grade worked excitedly as the garden provided them a well-earned break from traditional disciplines, but, there was something noticeable in the garden—a distinct lack of food to eat. There was no lettuce and no snap peas to enjoy. As I looked around, I realized there were very few plants that had reached their edible state. There was a lone kale stalk covered in aphids. A scraggily flat of starts sat on a bench. From the over 300 school gardens I have seen, I can say this struggling-to-keep-up, underproductive garden is a common sight.
Under the best circumstances, school gardens are utterly inspiring. They are places where kids and young adults engage with the natural world, connect with and begin to understand food systems. Gardens are perhaps the perfect setting for students to begin learning about climate change in an inspiring and empowering manner. Each of these experiences relies on one common prerequisite: The garden must be a thriving, productive space, bursting at the seams with a bounty of life and fresh food to eat.
Photos courtesy of Common Vision
Enter perennial agriculture and low-maintenance, high-yielding systems. Perennial plants are long-lived species like fruit trees, berry bushes, asparagus, and artichokes. Unlike their “annual” cousins (tomatoes, lettuce, peppers, and the like), perennial plants don’t require constant maintenance in the form of tilling, seed starting, transplanting and significant summer maintenance. When perennial crops are planted in a well-designed system, they can result in thousands of pounds of fresh, school-grown food with significantly less regular maintenance, allowing teachers to focus on what they do best—teaching.
There is mounting evidence that perennial agricultural systems can do significantly more to combat climate change than their annual cousins. In the schoolyard, both can eliminate the carbon footprint of shipping food from far away. But as we look closer, perennial plants sequester carbon in two major ways to a far greater extent than annual plants can. First, perennials hold carbon in their woody mass and in their extensive root systems as they grow.
Second, perennial plants care can leave the soil undisturbed year after year, which keeps carbon in the soil rather than releasing it into the atmosphere through tilling. This practice is a type of “no-till” agriculture. Groups like the Marin Carbon Project are finding that no-till agriculture, in combination with a healthy application of compost, can sequester enormous amounts of atmospheric C02 on an ongoing basis. When compost-inoculated soil is left undisturbed, billions of microorganisms are able to thrive, working to pull CO2 out of the air and store it in the soil.
Photos courtesy of Common Vision
The results? Less carbon in the atmosphere, where it is a greenhouse gas and would contribute to climate change, and more carbon in the soil, where it is called “organic matter” and supports fertility, water retention, and disease resistance for growing plants, which in turn also sequester more carbon. No-till, perennial agriculture can become a positive feedback loop sequestering more and more greenhouse gas.
When students are able to participate in activities that mitigate climate change, everyone wins. Many public schools throughout the country are not yet teaching climate science. State standards, in the best cases, have been slow to adapt and, in the worst cases, intentionally blocked. While organizations such as Truth In Texas Textbooks are aiming to “teach the controversy,” students often graduate without an adequate understanding of the climate crisis—a situation that is supported by years of scientific observations and analysis and that 99% of scientists say is, indeed, happening.
Simultaneously, parents and teachers often worry that accurate climate change education can be disempowering and even frightening. However, when students have the opportunity to pull together with their peers and do things to combat the climate crisis, the experience can be empowering. Students can gain an understanding not only of the science behind climate change but also of the exact types of collective action that will be necessary to slow and, eventually, stop it.
On the same day as my visit to the underproductive and under-inspiring school garden, I visited another school that is going the perennial route. I met with the principal, a teacher, and a parent volunteer to lay out the planting of 21 fruit trees. We planned the automated drip irrigation system, envisioned creating shade with peaches and persimmons around the “gathering area,” anticipated growing mandarins next to the path and training apple and Asian pear trees along each of the fence lines. As we imagined this lower-maintenance garden in the coming years, the prospect of beauty and tons of fresh fruit for future students evoked excitement.
Beyond the beauty, this outdoor laboratory shows the connection between plants, soil, and the atmosphere; cultivates a relationship between the food children eat and real-life growing systems; provides an opportunity for all students to participate together in taking small steps toward combating climate change—perhaps these qualities embody the real excitement—and greatest yield—to come.