A Downtown School Garden

Classes Sprout in Food Garden At Lord Roberts Elementary School

By Bruce Whyte
From School Garden Guidelines
City Farmer, 1988

“Our class has learned all about gardening. I planted
vegetables. I like gardening.” Hannah, Grade 2.

Eager, energetic, and excited, an after-school crowd of children clusters around the fenced enclosure within the schoolyard of Lord Roberts Elementary School in Vancouver’s densely populated West End.

The object of their attention is the school’s food garden, an incongruous oasis of greenery in the midst of the high-rise apartment blocks which make this one of the most populous neighbourhoods in the country. The kids are waiting their turn to join in the fun of urban agriculture, and later this June afternoon near the end of term, they’ll proudly bear off harvests of fresh radishes, lettuce and other vegetables, boasting, “I grew this myself!”

The 250 enthusiastic students of Lord Roberts have been learning valuable lessons about science, nutrition and how their environment works by planting, tending and harvesting vegetables. At the same time, they’ve helped beautify their concrete neighbourhood, while gaining a new understanding and respect for the miracles of nature.

A simple 5 by 15 meter (18 by 50 foot) garden has been the classroom for this pioneer project in learning, its raised growing beds and borders serving as the practical laboratories providing the children with the chance to gain hands-on understanding of the growing world which once seemed so foreign to their city centre way of life.

“One of our goals as a school board is to introduce science into the elementary school classrooms in a hands-on way,” says trustee Bill Darnell of the Vancouver school district. “As a gardener myself, I like the idea of a school garden.”

Sign welcoming people to the Lord Roberts' School Garden.

Sign welcoming people to the Lord Roberts' School Garden.

Lord Roberts principal Al Hasley is another booster. “It has really livened up the science program,” he says of the garden. “Now instead of being just theoretical, science is something they can see and feel outdoors. Anything that you can do that’s practical like this has tremendous impact.”

“It was perfect,” adds Donna Christie, who teaches Kindergarten. Christie says sessions in the garden seemed to help calm the active Kindergarten children. “The garden was really good for them,” she notes. “They seemed to become more aware of trees and plants, and to have more respect for them. Before, when we were on outings, I used to have to keep them from pulling and picking things in other people’s gardens. Now they know growing things is a lot of work.”

The concept of using a school garden to help teach city kids about growing plants evolved out of a project begun by neighbours who sought to beautify the grounds of Lord Roberts.

Their group, The West End Playground Society, adopted a proposal which would see a large portion of the gravel-covered schoolyard made into a grass playing field, trees and flowers planted all around the school, a large adventure playground built in a “king of the castle” style, and along one perimeter fence, a food garden.

Gary Pennington, a University of British Columbia professor of education, assumed the job of coordinating the playground project for the society, and under his leadership school board approval for the plan was achieved.

City Farmer, a non-profit group promoting urban food gardening, was invited to help develop the food garden. Michael Levenston of the organization introduced the garden program by taking City Farmer’s urban agriculture slide show into the classroom to help prepare the students for the physical gardening to follow in the spring.

With his slides he showed the kids how plants grow from seed, how gardeners tend them, and how they’re eventually harvested for the dinner table. During his talks he explained why City Farmer advocates organic techniques over chemical fertilizers and pesticides. He introduced them to the radical idea that people in the city can grow food, not just farmers in the countryside.

Long before the first seed was planted, Levenston knew the garden project was going to be a success, at least with the children. “When the bell sounded to end the class, the kids didn’t want to go to recess, they wanted to ask me questions about growing things.”

Meanwhile Pennington and his volunteers, along with workers hired under a training grant from Employment and Immigration Canada, had begun to prepare the garden. After students had marked out the bed sites with string, the workers split old cedar poles donated by B.C. Telephone and cut them to shape the forms. As the weather warmed, the students began hauling topsoil and manure into the bed forms with wheelbarrows and buckets.

The crews added a high chain-link fence to discourage vandalism, then ran a 38 millimeter (1 1/2 inch) water line to the garden from the school building, eliminating the need to haul buckets of water across 90 meters (100 yards).

When, in May, City Farmer hired Bev Weber to serve as garden instructor, the Lord Roberts food garden was ready to begin teaching the eight classes of Kindergarten through Grade 7 students.

“They did everything – prepared the beds, planted seeds, transplanted seedlings, weeded, watered, fertilized and harvested. They got the experience of the whole garden cycle, “says Weber. She notes she found it important to explain to the city-bred children why they were performing each task. “The secret is that if you explain things to them, if they understand why they are doing things and they can get results, there interest is there to carry them through.”

The detailed and basic explanations, probably not as necessary for rural or suburban children, were essential for the West End kids. “Ninety-five per cent of these kids are apartment dwellers, and a lot of them didn’t even know what a plant was,” she says. “I’ve had to explain to them that food doesn’t come from the supermarket – it grows.”


Parents of Lord Roberts students are unanimous in their approval of the garden project. Catherine Wiseman, whose son Michael is entering Grade 5, was typically enthusiastic at a recent party to celebrate the garden’s success.

“I grew up on a farm in Northern Ontario, but Michael has lived his whole life here in the West End. I think it’s just great for the kids to get this experience digging in the ground – it’s like growing up on a farm,” Wiseman says. “The garden is good because children in the West End don’t get the experience of how things grow. They see these vegetables are more nutritious than the foods they get at the supermarket.”

And Gary Pennington, the professor of education, sees the food garden as being able to provide benefits which reach beyond the hard facts of science. Gardening can help teach an environmental ethic he contends, but it can also do something more important – stimulate the children’s curiosity.

“The food garden increases their sense of wonder. It’s pretty magical, but at the same time, it demystifies the concept of food production.”

Michael Levenston