On a hot spring day, 71-year-old Delores Emanuel kneels near a pile of dirt, urging a group of 4-year-olds to dig a hole deep enough so the purple peppers they are planting can grow and thrive.
"This is my most prized time of the week," Emanuel says of the 30 minutes each Wednesday morning she spends with preschoolers at a community garden on the east side of San Antonio. "It's thrilling to see these young people doing something so beautiful when there is so much ugly out there." She points to the world beyond the tall chain-link fence that surrounds the small plot of land brimming over with a wide variety of vegetables, herbs and flowers.
This prized weekly half-hour is just one of the activities that keep the John Fanick Children's Garden growing. Master gardener Vernon Mullens works with senior citizens, preschoolers and school-age youth from the surrounding neighborhood year-round to create and maintain the 2,000-square-foot garden adjacent to a community center. The cooperative project is run under the auspices of the San Antonio Parks and Recreation Department and the Texas Agricultural Extension Service.
Mullens, a retired military officer and father of six, organized the Fanick garden in 1993. "I saw a lack of knowledge among kids about their roots," he says with a smile, aware of the word's double meaning. "The garden seemed to be a great way to get kids acquainted with their heritage and culture through working with plants. And involving the older folks gives them, and the children, a sense of connection that is missing in many of their lives."
This kind of "green" thinking is catching on all over the country. From the fertile patch of peppers, greens and grains in San Antonio to a network of youth community gardens in Madison, Wis., to a statewide curriculum for historical theme gardens developed in Montpelier, Vt., innovative horticulture programs are springing up nationwide. Schools, community organizations, rehabilitation centers and prisons are discovering the nurturing, healing and community-building benefits that can come from handling a hoe and watching things grow.
While approaches vary among these gardening efforts, their goals are similar: to go beyond the traditional function of a school garden as a science or nutrition learning tool to teach youngsters cultural awareness, cooperation, independence and interdependence. In the process, the gardens provide a setting in which participants of all ages can peacefully cross the social and economic boundaries that often impede the development of meaningful relationships.
Throughout the San Antonio garden, colorful signs made from plastic plates label each variety of plant along the four main rows. Vernon Mullens says he uses plates because they echo one of his guiding themes, which he repeats as often as possible to visitors and participants alike: "The gardening ain't done till it's on the table." He believes that going through the whole process from "seed to feed" lets kids master a kind of patience and nurturing that they might not learn in any other part of their lives.
"A lot of these kids have a difficult home life," he says. "Gardening heals some of those scars and gives them a haven where they can have some ownership."
In the "ethnic garden" row, African American and Hispanic youngsters ages 6 to 13 grow a variety of plants that are commonly cultivated in their cultures. The African American plants include mustard greens, chard and okra; the representative Hispanic crops are corn, hot and sweet peppers, and pinto beans. Borrowing from both cultures, the children plant tomatoes and grains ranging from wheat to amaranth and quinoa.
Ian Savage, 13, who has been working with Mullens since the project began, says he acquires knowledge in the garden that he would never get anywhere else. "We learn about the history of plants and how they were used by different races and cultures all the way back to the Greeks."
A second row in the San Antonio plot contains the "wee folks coloring book garden," where plants such as snapdragons, sunflowers, carrots and tomatoes are grown for their vibrant hues. Here preschoolers also witness the life cycles of plants and insects and build a foundation for the emotional renewal that gardening can provide throughout their lives.
"Early on," says Mullens, "kids want that connection with the earth that they get through gardening. They just naturally gravitate to it."
In another row, a group of diabetic senior citizens grow beans and greens -- foods that meet their dietary requirements -- and healing herbs such as spearmint and dill. In a fourth row, 6- to 13-year-old athletes grow spinach and corn, vegetables that will help make their bodies strong, as well as rosemary and bay leaves, herbs that were used by sports devotees as far back as the first Olympics in Greece.
By highlighting the cultural, aesthetic, scientific and healthful dimensions of plants in one garden, Mullens hopes to enrich his young partners' sense of harmony and interdependence with the world around them. "Gardening that is culturally sensitive," he says, "gives these kids a sense of who they are and where they come from."
Forming connections among diverse groups is also a theme that drives a Madison, Wis., community gardening project called "Growing Power." By connecting and supporting a number of intergenerational and multicultural community garden programs throughout the Madison area, the nonprofit agency fosters not only cooperation but a new sense of economic power that can result from such teamwork. The agency also provides horticultural training, university interns, volunteers, tools and gardening supplies to the local groups.
"Our gardens celebrate diversity on a lot of levels," says Hope Finkelstein, the organizer of Growing Power, which sprang from her work with children's gardens at an antipoverty agency in Madison. "When you have your own garden, you learn the immensity of biological diversity and you learn a respect for that. And that naturally comes back to looking at people."
Finkelstein describes adjacent intergenerational community gardens in Madison that are worked primarily by African Americans and Asian Americans. "Because they are side by side," she says, "the gardeners naturally share with each other. It is not integration in a rigid way -- it's not forced. But it creates the conditions where people can be exposed to each other in a comfortable way."
For instance, as they worked in neighboring plots, African American longtime residents of the neighborhood and recent Hmong immigrants from Vietnam and Laos began to notice they were growing some of the same plants, such as hot peppers and mustard greens. So in the fall, at a community harvest festival, the two groups shared their hot sauce recipes, and from that simple act came a new way of relating to each other.
"The harvest festival really puts everyone on the same plane," says Finkelstein. "Rich or poor, Black or White, it doesn't matter. All the gardeners share in the bounty and wealth of the harvest."
But Finkelstein does not overlook some of the stumbling blocks she has encountered as cooperative gardens have caught on in Madison. "We found many of the younger Hmong refugees shied away from gardening because of family traditions," says Finkelstein, referring to a tension between the older generation of Hmong people, whose lives were based on agriculture, and their children, who were trying to escape that way of life.
"Now that they were in America, they were denying their parents' traditions and did not want to get out in the garden." Finkelstein says the resistance gradually subsided as community members began to understand the principles of self-reliance and cultural sharing on which the project is based.
The obstacle that she describes is one that other garden organizers recognize. Vernon Mullens of San Antonio observes that, while most Hispanic participants in his garden project are several generations removed from farm work, he does find resistance among some African Americans.
"One lady told me that she didn't want to participate [in the intergenerational garden]," he says, "because it brought up too many memories of hard work."
In Berkeley, Calif., as David Hawkins helped develop the Edible Schoolyard, a culinary garden at Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School, he encountered some of these same cultural issues among students who associated agriculture with low status and past injustice. The school is racially and ethnically diverse, with African Americans, Asians, Latinos and Whites, all from varying socioeconomic backgrounds. Hawkins found that discussions about history and social studies often became a necessary aspect of the gardening activities.
"I dealt with those issues mostly by just listening to the students' concerns," Hawkins continues, "and then by talking about how our garden was different from the exploitative slave plantations of the past. As long as students' feelings weren't censored, we got beyond those issues by working through them."
Another stumbling block garden organizers sometimes face is vandalism. All over the country, and especially in larger cities, school and community gardens have been subject to intrusions ranging from vegetable-snatching to more malicious pranks. At a culinary garden that Vernon Mullens helped start at a high school in San Antonio, all the tomatoes, herbs and other plants were stolen or destroyed.
Experience has shown that posting "pride" signs that identify the gardening group and welcome participants can help deter vandalism. Other measures include installing fences and involving as many community members and students as possible in the project.
Through their horticultural projects, Mullens, Finkelstein and Hawkins have found that the garden provides one of the ideal ingredients for resolving conflicts among young people: face-to-face, hand-to-hand interaction. "These kids have had to learn to work together in the garden," Hawkins says, "in ways they don't have to in the classroom."
In Montpelier, Vt., a nonprofit group has integrated the unity-through-gardening approach into a multi-faceted classroom curriculum. Founded 11 years ago to address childhood hunger and malnutrition, Food Works coordinates an extensive K-6 community-based school gardening centerpiece called Common Roots. The program gives teachers, students, parents and community members a framework for creating historical theme gardens.
Program director Joseph Keifer says, "The whole curriculum is easily crossed through a garden. You can bring together a lot of subject areas and can reach kids who have different ways of learning because you're giving them a firsthand experience they might remember better than a traditional lesson."
Common Roots offers teachers a way to combine social studies and science with local history, and even language and the arts, and to help kids understand the value of the land and their culture and the connections between them. The complete program covers a 6-year period and has been used in part or in full in dozens of Vermont schools during the last 10 years.
The gardening area in a schoolyard is divided into distinct sections for each grade level. In the kindergarten curriculum, children begin gardening in much the same way that Vernon Mullens' youngest gardeners do: by planting colorful, familiar plants and vegetables and watching them grow from seed. In the years that follow, students cultivate a series of garden environments that teach them about their community, state, country and world.
For the 1st and 2nd grades, the program suggests planting a Native American garden based on one portrayed in a guidebook entitled In The Three Sisters Garden. The book tells the story of Sister Corn, Sister Squash and Sister Bean and takes children through two yearlong series of activities that teach them about Native American culture, history, agriculture, folklore and hands-on gardening methods. The 3rd, 4th and 5th grade segments explore various aspects of local and regional horticultural heritage. Elders from the community teach the children to care for the plants and how to use them after harvest.
By 6th grade, students apply the garden practices they have learned in the previous years to tackle the question "How do we feed 6 billion people in the world in the year 2000?" This can engage students in statistical analysis and research on high-yield grains, drought-resistant varieties of food plants, and equitable distribution of the food supply. At harvest time, the 6th graders either sell their produce to the community or donate it to local food banks.
"Through a garden," says Keifer, "you're not just growing food; you're growing learning. You watch seeds grow into plants and then become food, and that teaches patience. And the garden is a refuge, a place of peace, which gives students a hands-on sense of meaning that grounds them and connects them to the past and the future. The garden does take work, but the benefits to the children and all the adults involved go far beyond a standard classroom curriculum."
It's an ambitious undertaking, but Food Works provides training for teachers and administrators in the form of graduate-level education courses, one-day workshops and on-site consultations. In addition, the organization makes the In the Three Sisters Garden and other curriculum guidebooks available through its Common Roots Press.
Across the country, young gardeners are taking to heart the kinds of complex life lessons that cooperative horticultural projects seek to instill. Eleven-year-old Christopher McBride has been participating in the San Antonio garden project alongside "green thumbs" of all ages for several years now. As his passion for gardening grows, so does his understanding of its larger implications.
"It's kind of cool," Christopher says, smiling as he surveys the thriving patch. "In the garden you can see the corn and beans and the tomatoes all mixed up together, growing -- kind of like friends."