Discovery Files

Science, Education and Community: Organically Grown

Community gardens are sowing more than seeds, thanks to a project bringing students, educators, researchers and neighbors together to cultivate food and science together. First introduced in 11 U.S. cities, Garden Mosaics is now going global.

What is a garden, if not an alliance between plants and people, a place where both can thrive? That idea struck Marianne Krasny in the early 1990s as she walked through a community garden in the middle of America's biggest urban jungle, New York City. 

"On one side, there was a school. On the other side was a Bangladeshi mosque....You had these big high-rises right next to a green space, and at the same time [the garden] was bringing together all ages of people from different ethnic backgrounds," Krasny remembers, adding that it was clear that knowledge was being traded from the elders to the students, and vice versa.

A professor of natural resources at Cornell University in upstate New York, Krasny focuses on projects that integrate civic action with science education. In other words, she has been working to achieve what she saw happening, well, rather organically that summer afternoon in New York City.

In 2001, Krasny received a grant from the National Science Foundation's Informal Science Education program to create Garden Mosaics, a project that merges gardening with education in urban areas. Since then, the project has expanded into dozens of cities across the United States and abroad, and has received recognition from national educational groups and gardening associations.

With a background in the extension services that link university researchers with the surrounding communities, Krasny began by considering how community gardens could function as laboratories and classrooms in high-density neighborhoods. The gardens, she thought, might be an ideal living laboratory and meeting place for students, teachers, community elders and scientists to engage in scientific discovery together.

Krasny paired the scientific resources of Cornell with the "local" knowledge of diverse, multi-generational groups of gardeners. After networking with colleagues, schools and community centers around the country, she settled on 11 cities to launch Garden Mosaics.

In each city, community gardeners pooled resources with students aged 10-18 and teachers from area schools to improve the gardens, conduct science investigations and encourage people of different ages--and often, very different ethnic backgrounds--to learn from each other.

Teaching science as a process of inquiry is a perennial challenge in science education, Krasny says. But Garden Mosaics is designed to help teachers do just that. By investigating scientific problems in subjects such as land use, nutrition, food systems and agriculture, the Garden Mosaics science projects help educators meet national standards.

The students often begin by investigating the role of community gardens in their neighborhoods, interviewing gardeners to learn how local growers' planting methods relate to their cultural heritage. Some of the students become involved in weed control in the gardens; others conduct original research. For all participants, the Garden Mosaics Web site is a place to share and discuss findings and observations. It is also a rich information source: downloadable information sheets explain how to grow fruits and vegetables, control weeds, and conduct experiments.

In a Sacramento, Calif., Garden Mosaics project, teenagers interviewed Hmong immigrants about how vegetables are grown in the immigrants' native Laos. In San Antonio, Texas, a local teacher showed her students how to use aerial photographs and topographic maps to navigate the neighborhood and find local gardens. In New York City, students noticed that few stores in Harlem's main commercial districts offered a good selection of fresh produce and unprocessed foods. To provide an alternative, the students found a city-owned lot where they could plant a garden--later donating a bumper crop of collard greens to a local community kitchen.

In his journal, one New York City student described the experience of community gardening this way: "The garden project ... gives you a positive note, even when you want to beat someone up. The garden takes that anger out of you."

To encourage young people to learn from community elders, the Garden Mosaics project encourages students to interview older gardeners about their lives and their relationships with the land. The kind of knowledge they possess, says Krasny, has grown rarer in the United States as Americans increasingly get produce from large-scale farms located outside communities. The interviews, a collection of personal histories called Gardener Stories, are published on the Garden Mosaics Web site.

"We're collecting knowledge from not just observational data, but also from the gardeners themselves," Krasny explains. "It's a way to integrate the knowledge of the elders with resources from scientists. And we feel that the act of collecting these stories is an educational process itself."

There is no typical gardener-community elder, Krasny points out. But among her favorites is Mimes Walker, an 88-year-old gardener from South Carolina who brings his family's long tradition in farming to New York City's Five Star Garden. Walker traces his interest in gardening to his grandparents, who were plantation slaves. His parents, farmers, took Walker out of school in the first grade to help work the fields and care for a growing band of younger siblings. Though his formal education is limited, Walker's story reveals a wealth of knowledge about crops and the land. He and his daughter, Classie, described for a team of young Garden Mosaics students how planting marigolds with collard greens prevents insects from laying eggs on the collard leaves, and how to prepare the soil for other fruits and vegetables.

"The focus of Garden Mosaics isn't just on disseminating materials and ideas to educators," Krasny explains. "It brings a lot of benefits to students and faculty at Cornell as well."

For example, Antonio DiTommaso, a professor in the department of crop and soil sciences at Cornell, is developing new methods for weed control. Students involved in Garden Mosaics projects help DiTommaso by inventorying the weeds they find in local gardens around the country, and uploading the information into a database on the Garden Mosaics site. The "weed watch" project, as it is called, is modeled after citizen science projects that have helped ornithologists track migratory birds and meteorologists understand weather patterns.

Alexey Kudryavtsev, a Cornell graduate student originally from Siberia, spent a hot summer in New York City studying how effective an informational Garden Mosaics DVD was in jumpstarting individual projects. Two other Cornell students, Kendra Liddicoat and Jamila Simon, took Garden Mosaics as far afield as Durban, South Africa, where they worked in township schools. Along with Krasny and Garden Mosaics program leader Keith Tidball, the students visited the Mountain of Hope Community Garden in Johannesburg, where gardeners plant vegetables in raised beds shaped like an AIDS ribbon, with recycled tires serving as a border. 

As Garden Mosaics projects take root around the world, others have taken notice. In 2005, the American Community Gardening Association named Garden Mosaics its signature youth education project, and the Garden Mosaics DVD won a top educational award from the INTERCOM/Chicago International Film Festival. 

--Sarah Goforth