Thursday, 16 February 2012

L.A.'s Lost School Gardens

School gardens have recently made a comeback in an unusual place: urban Los Angeles.

With summer school canceled at many L.A. campuses, parents, politicians and child volunteers have been learning about growing food from scratch. This isn't a new idea, however. L.A. schools featured a number of school gardens that produced award-winning crops and taught children the skills they'd need to grow food as adults.

Humble Beginnings

One of the city's first public schools was built in 1889 at the corner of Wilson and East 7th streets in downtown L.A. Originally just four rooms, this school quickly grew to two stories, crowded with as many as a thousand students. In these kinds of conditions, it may seem impossible to get an education. However, teaching philosophy at the time focused not only on classroom time, but on learning outdoors, too. This allowed students to get out of their overcrowded classrooms and find out more about the world around them.

At the time, most children went only partially educated. Some received no education at all, going straight to work as soon as they were able. Philanthropists at the time argued that America would never be a global success until all children, not just those belonging to rich families, received a basic education. The children of factory and store workers only began receive basic education in the very late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Then still an agricultural region full of orchards and fields, late 19th century L.A. allowed teachers to take their students outside and expand their horizons. In 1910, teacher Marie Aloysius Larkey was hired by the Board of Education. Larkey had previous training in agriculture economy and knew how to manage gardens. She single-handedly pioneered the school garden movement, initially buying an empty lot just 100 feet long at the back of the school on 7th street.

The First School Garden

This property didn't look like a good place to plant. All around it were polluting factories and railroad yards. The lot itself had been allowed to deteriorate and was full of weeds and little else. Located in a rundown, low-income neighborhood, it was surrounded by the gardenless wood-framed homes of working class families. The streets around the school were devoid of trees or pavement. Many of the students had never grown anything at all. This humble lot, however, turned out to be ideal for teaching the children that they could transform a barren area into a beautiful, productive landscape.

Larkey got the help of the press, public officials and local women's clubs. They hired workers and signed up volunteers, who installed irrigation and cleared off the trash and debris crowding the lot in just one week. Gardening supplies and seeds came from the Los Angeles Board of Education. The students planted vegetables and flowers, and the gardens eventually grew to take up 150 previously-abandoned lots. Garden study was integrated into a wide range of classes. Produce from the gardens went to soldiers in WWI.


Garden programs declined after the war, though some survived into the 1940s. Many of the school gardens were eventually replaced by playgrounds and children began to take all their lessons indoors. Now, schools are environmentally-controlled boxes surrounded by asphalt and few trees or plants. The revival of garden programs could change that, teaching children to beautify L.A. once more.

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