Harvest of Hope: Cultivating Learning Gardens

Speaker: Sunday HarrisonWritten by: Sheena Jain & Esha Jain

What if you could find a system to empower urban children, the youth and their families to learn about growing and preparing fresh food in a cultivated environment? Well, Ms. Sunday Harrison has created just that, by bringing the concept of “learning gardens” to local elementary schools as an after school program. Her objective is to generate a fun and experimental learning environment to help develop the palate of children and the youth, so that they are willing to try new foods and essentially make healthier choices.

Ms. Harrison’s Green Thumb Model consists of implementing learning gardens in a cluster of elementary schools near the Centre for Social Innovation Regent Park (CSI-RP). Within this model one garden and one food educator is designated to serve up to four schools. The garden is designed to be managed by each school at least once per day, which in other words means that a total of 4 classes are allocated to the garden per day and as much as 400 students are involved in the cultivating process per week.

            Although this idea may seem unfamiliar to some of us, there is a variety of research available depicting the benefits and importance of learning gardens. Some of these research findings include:

  • Nutrition programs with and without a school garden; more effective with gardens (Morgan 2010, 127 Grade 5 students, 10 week program)
  • Interest and willingness to try new fruits and vegetables increases with the use of gardens in institutions (Libman 2007, Morgan et al. 2010, Radcliffe et al. 2011)
  • Interventions that target children living in low income urban communities are particularly important because adult eating patterns are developed early in life (Radcliffe et al. 2011)

Learning gardens are also beneficial as they help children and the youth develop food literacy. The best way to learn the language of food is to directly be involved in the harvesting process. By understanding the vocabulary, people gain a better idea as to what is involved in food systems, including its production, distribution, control and essentially how the food we eat gets to our plates. Children and the youth also acquire knowledge regarding seed saving and the annual cycle of vegetables in a season. This concept encompasses both math and science because it also provides a greater understanding of the growth of more seeds with each plant that grows. Normally, people are unaware of what is present in the food that they are consuming, including the negative effects of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO’s). However having direct involvement in the gardening process gives individuals the ability to completely identify the contents within their food. Playing an active role in cultivating food also allows direct interaction with pesticides/fertilizers. This therefore demonstrates the necessity of fertilizer use to prevent the erosion of soil health and to destroy microbiota of systems in order for plants to adequately extract nutrients from the soil. Additionally, it allows a greater understanding of water conservation, where rainwater can be utilized for hydration instead of excess use of municipal water. Exhibiting this same system of learning gardens in low income urban environments can also counteract organic premium inequality where populations unable to afford organic foods would normally have limited access to them.

Since climate change education starts in middle school, learning gardens implemented within the curriculum can further assist in demonstrating the effects of seasonal change on cultivation. Currently there are limited resources concerning climate change available. A google search for “climate change” between kindergarten to 8th Grade science only yields 6 matches. Furthermore searching “mitigation” yields no matches. Therefore employing learning gardens into the school system can be very beneficial in providing knowledge regarding local foods that grow in Ontario, what seasons they typically develop in and what adapts to our microclimate in Ontario. Additionally, they can also mitigate climate change by allowing for use of locally grown foods as opposed to transporting foods from more distal locations and by sequestering carbon. If these practises were executed by more people, they would have an even greater impact possibly on a global scale.

Typically up to 40% of food grown is wasted in landfill emitting methane gas, as opposed to being properly composted. Therefore educating students on appropriate techniques of composting on school grounds can also prevent agricultural waste.

In addition to learning gardens, Ms. Harrison’s Harvest of Hope program also offers after school youth programs for individuals between the ages of 15-19. Volunteer programs are also available to provide opportunities to children interested in getting involved and they even offer grown-up gardens and placement to attract more diverse age groups. They also provide summer programs for the youth and intergenerational programs for family harvesting in order to encourage the growth of crops rich within the summer months. In addition to managing gardens from seedlings to harvest, they also offer a youth enterprise which is a partial farmers market available in order for extra produce to be utilized rather than wasted.

The future of the program is headed towards a transition from school gardens to ecologically friendly trades. This new direction will also offer youth training and good green jobs in addition to food and urban agriculture and ecological landscape gardening without the use of machinery and pesticides.


1)   What effects do learning gardens have on children with attention disorders?

Many research findings have supported the attention restoration theory, where nature as a whole and gardens in particular have been shown to restore the directive attention of individuals and therefore improve their mental acuity. (Berto, 2005)

            Children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) have also been seen to present with fewer symptoms when exposed to green space (Kuo and Taylor, 2004) and in particular learning gardens. Many teachers have also reported that students with ADHD and other disorders seem to thrive and perform better mentally in the engaging nature and greenery provided by learning gardens. (Wells, 2000) These students have also demonstrated fewer disciplinary issues in this setting as “invisible walls” can be created to help establish a sense of boundaries.   

2)      What are some possible impacts community gardens can have on the elderly population?

Studies have shown that offering community gardening clubs to the elderly population could essentially reduce the need for more costly and intrusive care alternatives for dementia patients. (Kane and Cook, 2013)

Providing gardening opportunities to the elderly population would allow them to get involved in the activities required for its maintenance and could be a non-pharmacological strategy used to address some of the difficulties in daily living encountered by dementia patients. This can help with maximizing independent activity, increasing adaptability, enhancing function, minimizing the need for support and overall improving the quality of life for this population. (NICE, 2011)

There are many studies available, demonstrating the advantages of horticultural therapy and garden settings in improving attention, controlling agitation, reducing pain, stress levels and falls in addition to decreasing the need for medications including antipsychotics. These can especially be beneficial to the elderly population suffering from dementia. (Detweiler et al., 2012, Gitlin et al., 2012)

One study that was conducted compared the effects of planting, cooking and crafting activities on adult day service participants with dementia to the effects of horticultural based activities on randomly assigned participants from 8 home care facilities. The findings showed that horticultural activities were more effective in both active and passively involving participants who are otherwise difficult to engage and resulted in greater levels of adaptive behaviour. (Jarrot and Gigliotti, 2010) The outcome of this study coincided with Yasukawa’s (2009) findings, where Alzheimer’s patients participating in horticultural activity over a span of 3 months demonstrated improvements in their communication, engagement, behaviour and cognitive abilities.

 Additional studies have further confirmed the benefits of gardening therapy on the quality of life of dementia patients. D’Andrea et al. (2007) found that horticultural activities led to higher levels of functioning, as well as the maintenance of memory and sense of wellbeing in Alzheimer’s type dementia patients. Another study demonstrated that outdoor activities such as gardening resulted in the decline of verbal agitation and considerable improvement in the sleep patterns of nursing home residents with dementia compared to indoor activities. (Connell et al., 2007) Luk (2011) measured the effects of gardening activities amongst nursing home residents with dementia in Hong Kong and found a substantial reduction in aggressive behaviour but no significant decline in agitation.

Finally, Hewitt et al. (2013) concluded that individuals with early-onset dementia in a year-long structured gardening environment experienced positive impacts on their wellbeing, cognition and overall mood. The study also demonstrated that wellbeing maintenance could be possible even in the presence of cognitive deterioration. Involvement in the gardening process provided participants with a sense of self-identity and purposefulness as it allowed them to feel useful, valued and a sense of accomplishment.   

3)   What are some possible benefits of implementing learning gardens in juvenile facilities?

Juvenile offenders in agricultural training programs demonstrated improvement in their job skills, a peaked interest in further education and ideas for possibly pursuing green careers. (Flagler, 1995)

Juvenile offenders enrolled in Green Brigades program involving learning gardening techniques and participating in community landscaping were seen to develop increasing levels of self-esteem (Cammack, Waliczek & Zajicek, 2002a), horticultural knowledge, positive attitudes towards the environment (Cammack, Waliczek & Zajicek, 2002b) in addition to improvements in their mental health and well-being. (Ulrich, 1999)        


1)      "Benefits of School Gardening." Untitled Page. N.p., n.d. Web. 29 Nov. 2016. (http://web3.cas.usf.edu/tbsg/benefitsofschoolgardening.aspx)

2)      "Fact Sheet Summarizes Benefits of Gardening for Children." Children & Nature Network. N.p., 08 Aug. 2016. Web. 29 Nov. 2016 (https://www.childrenandnature.org/2009/08/02/fact_sheet_summarizes_benefits_of_gardening_for_children/)

3)      "Half an Hour of Gardening Has Potential to Combat Ill Health and Improve Wellbeing." Nursing Standard 30.11 (2015): 15. Web. 29 Nov. 2016. (http://www.farmtocafeteriacanada.ca/wp-content/uploads/2014/06/GrowingHealth_BenefitsReport.pdf)