At my urban public kindergarten, our teacher had us plant radish seeds in clear plastic cups so we could observe white roots snaking through tiny clumps of earth and the leaves breaking the surface, and then finally, voila, food could be plucked.

A critical foundation was taught through that exercise: Life is a miracle. Growth takes patience. And hey, wow, my food comes from dirt. So, an awareness was born for later years: When earth is a precious and essential resource, what further implications and consequences of my actions should I be considering?

So, when I became a teacher working with middle-schoolers living in underserved communities, I made a point of getting their hands dirty. I knew that a “health” class with tools of paper and pen wasn’t going to make a dent. The tools needed to be hands and seeds. Students needed ownership over growing—an experiential and direct connection with their food.

Also, I wanted them to see that they could still grow while living in an apartment. There used to be a place southeast of downtown LA, out in the middle of oil derricks, where you’d find what looked like small airplane hangars. Walking inside was like Willy Wonka opening the door to the chocolate factory: A vast aquaponic jungle filled with flowers and vegetables. A network of white PVC piping, like the bowels of an industrial building, overflowing with green and color. 

“O.M.G.! Is that a strawberry?! Look—the flower is white. I’d think it’d be red.”

“That’s no carrot. That’s just a weed . . . O.M.G.! O.M.G.! It grows in the dirt??”

“You can call it a microgreen, but now you are just getting us to eat weeds.”

Inside paradise amongst oil derricks, they learned how to plant. Then came our own raised beds and PVC aquaponics on the asphalt playground back at campus. Over time, walking to the corner liquor store after school to buy junk food instead became racing out to the playground to check on their plants. It wasn’t that they suddenly had an epiphany to quit junk food. They had a replacement behavior, something rewarding and fulfilling. It looked pretty. It was novel. They were responsible for cultivating and maintaining life. They were seeing the fruition of their work and experiencing pride. When they started feeding their community, that’s when they wanted to eat it. They had a relationship with their food.

After the garden, kids who needed to protect themselves with abrasiveness discovered gentleness. Their interactions around the garden were playful and collaborative. Older kids instinctively took on mentorship roles with younger kids who expressed an interest to learn.

In class they wrote about the garden as a personal symbol:

We’re living in concrete. Remembering the earth is getting grounded. It doesn’t get more core than caring for the plants that will become part of our bodies. Now I understand the expression, “we are what we eat.”

The daily maintenance is similar to maintaining the mind. You need to keep watering those seeds of potential. You need to make sure the soil is getting what it needs, so your plants stay healthy. Anything can grow in good soil, so you need to make sure you’re paying attention, getting out the stuff you don’t want, so the stuff you do want keeps growing—it’s like weeding. Cutting off the dead or weak stuff is like cutting out bad habits. 

Each of the plants has its own character, like people. Some need more space or more attention. Some provide protection, like the marigolds to the tomatoes. Nature is meant to be diverse so we can have all the vitamins we need. We’re healthier when there’s diversity. That means people are meant to be diverse, too. We need community. We need each other’s gifts to live maximumly. 

And finally… 

Celebrate and share your harvest.




Marcie Gilbert is an Educational Therapist actively involved in various aspects of education since 1994, including classroom teacher, co-founder of schools and programs, researcher, and interventionist.