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Lettuce learn to grow and eat healthy food

The benefits of utilizing gardens as outdoor classrooms have been well documented and are supported by a variety of practitioners and professionals (Bell, 2001; Blair, 2009; Ozer, 2007; Murphy, 2003).

As a doctoral student pursuing my Ed.D. in Educational Leadership at Appalachian State University, I’ve spent the past two years combing through the literature on garden-based education and have found that the amount of research documenting the benefits of school gardens has ballooned over the past ten years. This growing amount of research has even warranted its own garden-based research database created by the Cornell Garden-Based Learning Program (Western Growers Foundation, 2013).

In conducting this research, an interesting question emerged:

If school gardens are so beneficial, why are there so few successful school gardens in NC?1

The garden-based education research overwhelmingly focuses on assessing the benefits of using gardens to boost learning outcomes, nutritional habits, environmental literacy, inter- and intra-personal skills, and/or impacts on test scores (Blair, 2009; Klemmer, Waliczek, & Zajicek, 2005; Miller, 2007). However, maintaining a school garden is hard work that takes dedication, money, time, planning, organization, coordination, and effort. I “dug” around the academic literature in search of research explaining the main barriers and obstacles to school gardens and found little compared to that documenting the benefits. So, I decided to “walk the talk” and try it out for myself. 

garden in progress

In March 2014, I broke ground for a preschool learning garden in the front yard of the Appalachian State University Child Development Center. The site selection ended up being an accidental strategic move. Not only does the Child Development Center provide year-round care (no worries about summer maintenance issues) but the adaptability of daily schedules, minimal (i.e. zero) performance assessment tests, and University-owned property also allowed for much experimentation and flexibility.

August garden full copy

The experience was transformative and complex, to say the least:

the seed storyI struggled. I had a blast. I forgot to poke through the weed barrier so the beans’ roots were stunted. Four-year-olds tried– and liked!– radishes, beets, and kale for the first time. I started too late. Parents told me they decided to plant a garden at home at the insistence of their child. All of our corn died (so much for that wonderful “Three Sisters Garden” idea). A child went from fearing worms to loving them. None of my volunteers showed up when they promised they would. Her son now eats multiple servings of salad when before he ate none. The health department says we can’t serve the garden’s fresh vegetables to the students. The health department changes their mind and allows us to cook with the children. Japanese beetles nearly destroy our zinnias, beans, and basil. The University rallies behind our cause and features the garden on the front page of their website. Vine borers nearly wipe out our zucchini. All the children burst with excitement when I show up to lead them in a garden lesson. I learn something new every day. I have so many volunteers I now have to turn some away.

earth day celebration_group

I am nowhere near figuring out everything there is to know about gardening with children at public institutions. I am, however, even further convinced that this endeavor is worth it. I now, more than ever, believe in the benefits of transforming our state’s schoolyards into landscapes for learning.

From my experience, research, and numerous conversations listening to other school garden leaders, it seems as though the main barriers are:

  1. Time (solution: providing dedicated garden staff)
  2. Knowledge (solution: training and professional development opportunities)
  3. Resources (solution: rallying and networking the many garden resources of the community)

To test this barriers-solutions theory further (in an attempt to offer long-term solutions for school garden struggles), I am now embarking on a project, called “Lettuce Learn” that will attempt to overcome these barriers at a variety of institutions. Our pilot locations include two public schools, a private Montessori school, and five other early childhood facilities. The Lettuce Learn Project will train and supply garden coordinators to our partner school gardens. We will also offer a three-day professional development opportunity during July 2015. And lastly, we will help create and operate a resource-sharing network that connects community to school gardens. 

If you’d like to hear how we do, stay tuned at

Copy of carrots 



Bell, A. (2001). The Pedagogical Potential of School Grounds. In Grant, T., & Littlejohn, G. (Eds.), Greening school grounds: creating habitats for learning, (9-11). Gabriola Island, BC: New Society Publishers

Blair, D. (2009). The child in the garden: an evaluative review of the benefits of school gardening. Journal of Environmental Education 40(2), 15-38

Growing Minds. (2014). Growing Minds 2013-2014 Farm to School Report Card. Retrieved from

Klemmer, C. D., T. M. Waliczek, and J. M. Zajicek. 2005. Growing minds: The effect of a school gardening program on the science achievement of elementary students. HortTechnology 15(3):448-452

Miller, D. L. (2007). The Seeds of Learning: Young Children Develop Important Skills through Their Gardening Activities at a Midwestern Early Education Program. Applied Environmental Education and Communication, 6(1), 49–66.

Murphy, M., & Schweers, E. (2003). Evaluation of a food systems-based approach to fostering ecological literacy. Final Report to Center for Ecoliteracy.

NC Farm to School. (2013). Participation. Retrieved November 24, 2014, from

North Carolina Community Garden Partners. (2014). NC Community Garden Partners Directory. Retrieved November 24, 2014, from

Ozer, E. J. (2007). The effects of school gardens on students and schools: Conceptualization and considerations for maximizing healthy development. Health Education & Behavior, 34(6), 846–863.

Western Growers Foundation. (2013). California School Garden Network Research Database. California School Garden Network. Retrieved December 3, 2013, from

Show 1 footnote

  1. This number is hard to pin down and many reports provide inconsistent/incomplete numbers: The NC Farm to School Network (2013) provides a list of North Carolina schools that have committed to procuring locally sourced produced but does not identify schools with on-site gardening programs. North Carolina Community Garden Partners (2014) has compiled a list of community gardens around the state and broken them down into categories reporting 18 school gardens in the state. In Growing Mind’s (2014) latest Farm-to-School report card, they identified sharing seeds with 40 sites in 11 counties in far western North Carolina.
Courtney Baines Smith

Courtney Baines Smith is currently pursuing her Doctorate in Educational Leadership at Appalachian State University and teaches for the ASU Sustainable Development Department. She planted the Lettuce Learn seed out of out of her passion for gardens, farms, food, and education. From her work in the nonprofit sector and as a sustainability student and educator, she has been granted many opportunities to learn from — and be inspired by — phenomenal folks doing amazing things in the soil with their hands, heads, and hearts. She has learned that with creativity, love, and an eagerness to learn, all things are possible.