Muddy Waters

Most of the time, the garden is a quiet place, an idyllic refuge from the madding crowd. The loudest noise is usually the gentle buzz of bees or hum of hummingbirds on nectar-gathering sorties. Once in awhile, though, a controversy will alight amid the flowers and vegetables, the garden gloves come off, and, before you know it, the dirt is flying.

In the 90s, there was a showdown regarding hybrids versus heirlooms. The heirloom faction championed the mostly old, late, but flavorful cultivars with romantic names, and portrayed hybrids as a plot by Big Agriculture. In fact, the hybridists were improving the heirlooms for increased flavor, vigor and yield.

Soon another controversy arose. Exotic species from abroad were being introduced to America’s gardens. The nativists saw the foreign introductions as alien invaders, potential monopolists that would crowd out our indigenous plant life. The exoticists, on the other hand, cherished their rare species, gathered by intrepid plant explorers. Both controversies rage on, with no end—or middle ground—in sight.

Normally, in the winter months gardeners serenely peruse nursery catalogs and order seeds and plants for the coming season. This year the placid annual rite was rudely interrupted by an article in the Atlantic Monthly. Gardeners flung down their catalogs, sprang from their couches, and marched, if not to the barricades, to their computer keyboards to transpose their howls of dismay in upper case letters.

The perpetrator of the outrage is the writer Caitlin Flanagan, who in her January piece did a slash and burn number on the School Garden Movement. The article, posing as a review of the 2007 biography, Alice Waters and Chez Panisse by Thomas McNamee, gives the book scant mention, preferring to cast asparagus on Waters, the celebrated chef and progenitor of the contemporary School Garden Movement.

In her piece, “Cultivating Failure,” Ms. Flanagan contends that the School Garden Movement exacts a terrible cost on California’s cash-strapped, dysfunctional school system. Underperforming students, especially from minorities, are, she maintains, squandering precious time growing arugula, when their energies would be more profitably engaged in studies of math, science and literature.

In her opening salvo, the writer imagines the child of a migrant laborer, a naturalized American on pace to fulfill his father’s dream of a better future for his family. Then, on the first day of middle school, he “heads out to the field, where he stoops out under a hot sun and begins to pick lettuce.”

As the reader mulls the darkish ironies of this scenario, and the luxuriant infelicities of Flanagan’s prose, the writer’s klaxonlike voice yanks us from our reverie and flings us into the thickets of her second paragraph.

Mounting her bushelbasket, the Red Bull-fueled Flanangan declares, “The cruel trick has been pulled on this benighted child by an agglomeration of foodies and educational reformers who are propelled by a vacuous if well-meaning ideology that is responsible for robbing an increasing number of American schoolchildren of hours they might otherwise have spent reading important books or learning higher math (attaining the cultural achievements, in other words, that have lifted uncounted generations of human beings out of the desperate daily scrabble to wrest sustenance from dirt).”

What sticks to Flanagan’s crocs, one suspects, is not the fate of the “benighted” Latino and minority students in California schools, whose American dreams, she feels, are turning into compost in the garden.

Flanagan’s arguments against garden education are really an hors d’oeuvres. For the entrée served up in her piece is Alice Waters, who jump-started the School Garden Movement at Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School in Berkeley, California, where students, Flanagan fails to mention, spend roughly an hour-and-a-half each week in the garden. She is out to pillory Waters and the largely left-leaning idealists crusading to introduce garden education to American schools.

Decrying garden education as a “giant experiment” (it isn’t), Flanagan complains, “That no one is calling foul on this is only one manifestation of the way the new Food Hysteria has come to dominate and diminish our shared cultural life.” Huh?

Proponents of the Slow Food Movement and school gardens may, at times, sound preachy and precious. Reformers like Ms. Waters have provided ample targets for writers like Dickens, George Bernard Shaw, Nathanael West and Tom Wolfe. However, today’s food crusaders merit a sharper satirical knife than that wielded by Flanagan.

Yet, Ms. Flanagan has done the School Garden Movement an enormous favor, bringing welcome attention to the food fight and rallying the troops, who lit up the blogosphere with their denunciations of her piece.

Gardening surely merits a place in the school curriculum. Rather than be an adjunct to a student’s course of studies, gardening can serve as a hub where multiple disciplines converge. Consider the University of Wisconsin‘s innovative but less well known “Fast Plants” school programs. No blistering sun required, and their instructional value is unparalleled.

Furthermore, gardening is unique in how it involves and reflects multiple academic fields. One can study literature, history and mathematics by way of the garden. Furthermore, the science of the garden itself can be investigated from the vantage points of botany, biology, nutrition, ecology, evolution and astronomy.

Plants and seeds provide students with new ways to understand the world and their place in it. A small, modest garden supplies tactility, shape, color, fragrance and flavor: all key ways we apprehend reality. Finally, gardening provides an overarching narrative that connects and unites all aspects of humanity. Nothing to rail against.


Don’t forget tomorrow’s speech by Simon Crawford, our new plant explorer, at the Philadelphia Flower Show in Room 201C at 10:30 A.M. Thursday, March 4. Hope to see you there.

This entry was posted on Wednesday, March 3rd, 2010 at 1:42 pm and is filed under Original Posts. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.
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18 Responses to “Muddy Waters”

  1. nne said:

    Amen! The more urbanized our population becomes, the more removed children are from earth and how it functions. The old saying “Use it or Lose it” holds true whether you are speaking of math, science, literature and the arts. Students who have no ‘labs’ anymore in physics, chemistry, or biology never realize the total gain from their book knowledge. None of the sciences will make sense unless the student gets to experience a ‘hands on’ opportunity. There are endless lessons to be learned from all forms of gardening.

  2. John C. said:

    Thanks for bringing this article to my attention. I don’t usually associate The Atlantic with right-wing hysteria, but that’s certainly what this sounds like.

  3. Gary said:

    I am new to the Heronswood website, however I find the gardening words of wisdom both enlightening and refreshing, as I am also new to the gardening world I too see the need for it in our public schools for mulitple reasons, Like sports educational gardening promotes a team enviroment working together for the common good.Give a man a fish he’ll eat for a day, teach him to fish he’ll eat for a lifetime. So many children today beleive vegatables, meats and fruits come from the supermarket, it’s time they learn where they really come from, let’s get them away from the TV’s and out in the weather, get your hands dirty together, in the garden parents can act like their 8 again playing in the dirt and having fun as a family, try it you’ll be surprised how much your children will like it.

  4. jennifer of jemmadesigns landscapers said:

    My goodness what a fool miss as up until 50 years ago kids were routinely being yanked from school to do work on their father’s farms, whereby the laws of physics and biology were experienced in real time!One of our more intellectual Presidents, Abraham Lincoln worked to live as a child on the land and yet managed to be very well read!So many “kides” who come to work for me in heir 20’s are literal idiots when it comes to practical instincts in physics, chemistry and biology. They don’t think of consequences for any action! They get hurt a lot. Anyway, may I point out that classical literature that teaches cause and effect, and teaches thinking and questioning about societal ethics and morals (such as Dickens, and Stevenson..) may easily be taught and read IN THE GARDEN. The evidence of the old methods for teaching being the most successful is apparent in the percentage of literate citizens in the 1930s vs NOW. Sad to say. Jennifer M

  5. Having grown up on a farm north Florida in the sixties and seventies, growing exotic things like watermelons and soybeans(they were still kind of new then) my friends seemed amazed at how things where done. A trip accross the field on a tractor was a thing to behold, it was work for me but none the less I could see on their faces the amazment,and sheer wonder,the joy the would have at seeing hawk soaring about to and fro. Imagine how we could put a seed in the ground and know what it was going to do. Some went so far as to ask if they could come back and help when it came time to harvest(it was watermelons)and this all sounded great to my father. A spare pair of hands was always welcomed around the farm and if they had a freind who wanted to come all the better. Young people see growing things as the amazing process that it is. Almost as if they were seeinga miracle a watermelon from a seed what a concept,”and there are some more in the new one”, they would say. Now for me this was still work I had witnessed this miracle every year of my life and was quite shocked they viewed it this way but regardless the expressions on their faces told the intire story without saying a word. Fast forward to now(35 years) I have moved on,the farm was sold to a new owner and I have aged,had children, a JOB, a new occupation(no money in farming) parents have passed and things have changed. Still to this day when I see those people they tell me how fond they are of the time they spent riding the tractor and picking melons and to my amazement that expression comes back to their faces as they recant the hawk,and the melons and what a miracle watching something grow really is.
    Now I understand that were talking about gardening flowers and a hand full of peas but the miracle is the same. I might suggest that the author of the article(haven’t read it probably won’t) in question take a trip to watch some of these children look at their faces and maybe write a new piece about what she saw.


  6. Karen Hansen said:

    Wonderful read Mr. Ball. I am sharing this with all my native California friends…and my teen girls….because you have written the beliefs so well and yet raised the rational bar so that we can all still be the true believers in this plant world!

    Thank you so much for sharing!


  7. Rebecca Sink-Burris said:

    Every time I hear about arguments over what government schools should or should not be teaching, each topic becoming political warfare with the strongest faction “winning.” There is a peaceful way out of these dilemmas, School Choice. Let parents decide which schools to send their children to, any government or private school that they believe will best suit their child. The money should follow the child much as it did with the GI Bill. It comes down to respecting your neighbors peaceful choices, even if you don’t agree.

  8. Karen said:

    I really love your way with words and phrases.

    Too bad Caitlin doesn’t recognize her own part in the gardening world by the food she buys and prepares. Is she not going to buy any more lettuces? tomatoes? melons, etc? Most all of these are picked by students or their families.

  9. Marguerite said:

    School gardening is hardly new and is hardly an experiment. I used to live in an apartment in NYC and my first experience with gardening was in 1961, when my class spent about a half hour outdoors on a lovely day planting seeds in a garden plot. I never got to do anything else with that garden, but I still recall the intense fascination and the delight in having such an unusual break in my school day. The garden was for a summer school activity, but needed to be planted during the regular school year in order to be far enough along for the summer school program.

    When we finally moved to a house in the suburbs, I was given the opportunity to plant some seeds and got to see them grow to full size and to enjoy fresh grown beans (so delicious!) and tomatoes and asparagus. I hated the weeding, so when I was old enough to be in my own place, I learned the Ruth Stout method of gardening and have enjoyed gardening ever since.

  10. Susan said:

    It never fails to amaze me – the right in particular always seems to miss the most basic points of an issue like this. To begin with, kids now get little or no physical activity in the course of a school day, now that gym classes and, in some cases, recess have been abolished, it’s small wonder we have a nation of overweight, diabetic kids. Secondly, in the computer age, many people, not just children, have absolutely no idea that things like carrots come from the ground. They think that it just magically appears in the store in its cellophane bag. They have no idea where food really comes from, and what’s involved in getting it to the table. So, Ms. Flanagan, let’s review. We have kids getting fresh air, exercise, eating healthy food. We perhaps have a high schooler who, rather than joining a gang and getting in trouble, instead aims for college and a career in horticulture. And these are all bad things because……..?

  11. b kessler said:

    Thank you, and thanks to our Supreme Creator who gave us so many free gifts. My Mom bought me a box of pansies at age four because I loved their faces. I have been thankfully hooked ever since. Can’t wait till spring when the surprises will start. I look forward to the first spring visit at Mr. Burpee’s farm. Please keep writing!

  12. DebbieB said:

    Whoa! I think Ms. Flanagan deserves better. I read the piece in The Atlantic and I think she’s on target (and I don’t drink red bull and the only crocs I wear are the ones I bought in the garden store). No one is saying that the biology of plant life is not an important subject that can help students learn vital elements of many sciences. What they’re saying is that it is massively inefficient and borderline insane for each and every cash-strapped school in California to have its own garden. Your piece proves the point: students spend an hour and a half a week in it! Moreover, the fact that the plan was implemented proves another point: ts hard to hang on to reason when faced with an intelligent, well-meaning person in hot pursuit of a beautiful, harmless but utterly wasteful goal. The truth appears to be that as wonderful as gardens are, their cost is far higher than their value to the average student.

  13. Lee said:

    Thank you so uch for your newsletters. They keep me aware of your products,but unlike any other plant company newsletter, they keep me aware of my mind and the greater issues of gardening than my little plot of land. I save some and re-read other often. Lee

  14. Audra said:

    Amen to Heronswood! Todays younger generation (25ish and younger) doesn’t know much about taking care of themselves thanks to eliminating the home education classes, wood shop, etc. from the high school scene. We are becoming a nation of buyers and users of material items. (ie: food, clothing, material goods…) Most of the younger gen don’t know/care how, where, or who makes their products. All they care about is that what they want is on the shelf. Given a disaster, they wouldn’t last a minute as they haven’t any skills with growing their own food, making clothes, or fixing anything in their own homes! Lets get back to the basics so our country doesn’t have to rely and live off the backs of others, most of whom are less fortunate!

  15. Steve McNew said:

    At my school, one of the larger departments is the Ag dept… which raises food! Part of the dapartment does floriculture and horticulture, all of which is worked into the academic curriculum. The local Audubon Center, Aullwood, has a farm, which raises food! (currently on sale to the public) Local kids are at least aware of all of this. This is in Ohio -where we are supposed to be somewhat conservative. What’s with this person? (mad cow disease?)

  16. Joy said:

    Thank you so much for printing this artical- that woman needs her head examained.What better way for children to learn how to eat like they should and how to get out and enjoy the gardening and flower growing.Its relaxing and deffinately educational- All schools should have this program. She must have been raised in the city- She should have to spend a year on an agricultural farm and ranch.This type of education could help keep city kids off the streets and out of drugs and the like- Tell her to get an education.Keep up the good work.

  17. Scott Wallace said:

    Having been a middle school teacher in Colorado for 19 years, I have seen the ebb and flow that is a schools curriculum. Many years back I came upon the idea, as a 6th grade teacher of math and science and a professional landscaper in the summers, that my students could actually put forth their knowledge gained during the course of the year in a final project that combined skills from both subjects. Groups of students were given the charge to come up with a wildlife friendly garden in the courtyard of the school. Permission was given to use a small plot outside the art teachers window. A small grant was acquired from the local education foundation to fund the purchase of plant materials. The groups set to measuring the plot and coming up with a scale of the plot, incorporating what they had learned in math about ratios, proportions, and measurement. Once they had the outline of the plot they began researching what organisms could be attracted to our location and what plantings would accomplish the task. Once they had their lists, they narrowed the scope to the plants that would grow successfully for the location. At that point, they were asked to consider the budget and design a visually pleasing garden utilizing the entire budget. When they were finished they submitted their finished product to a committee consisting of the principal, art teacher, and custodian(whose job it would be to keep it going during the summer). A selection was made of the best design and the winning group got to go to the local nursery to select the plants. All students involved worked for a couple of days to prep the area. The plants were delivered and students installed a wonderful garden in just a few hours. The motivation and pride that the students showed for the finished product was evident from the number of families who visited and spent time at the site. Many parents began to ask their students if they thought they might be able to do something similar at home. The garden did achieve it’s goal and students reported seeing lots of creatures visit the tree and flowers as well as an occasional art class in need of subjects for sketching and painting. Critics can say what they will but if teachers don’t give students a tangible reason to learn math, science, humanities,and language arts, and provide them with real life situations around which to wrap their learning, students will not see much value in the lessons. I can think of no better way than to accomplish this elbow deep in the soil(or first knuckle deep as it is Colorado soil!). Ironically, a couple of years later the garden was removed in favor of an addition to the library and I saw that another teacher had submitted the same idea to the National Geographic Society and received a $10,000 award. I have no doubt, however, that there are a few more gardeners in this world because of that garden and some happy birds and butterflies as well!

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