What Does Gardening Have to Do With Schools?

When I lived in South Lake Tahoe and discovered a passion for sustainable land use and design (it’s hard not to when you live in a place that beautiful), one of the first books I read, after Bill Mollison’s seminal Permaculture: A Designer’s Manual, was Toby Hemenway’s Gaia’s Garden: A Guide to Home-Scale Permaculture. Hemenway is great at synthesizing and putting into everyday words and application the approach and philosophy of permaculture, and if you are into gardening at all, I highly recommend checking it out.

But this blog is not about gardening or land use, so what in the world does Hemenway have to do with public schools? If we are to assume that our model of schools as ecosystems is an accurate one, then it would make sense to seek to transfer ecological principles that work in the garden to the school environment.
Hemenway presents three overarching ecological principles at the outset of his book: niche, succession, and biodiversity. These three are a great way to kick off our exploration. In future posts, Will and I will seek to translate and consider these principles in direct application to school environments.
The Niche

In natural ecosystems, there is little that goes to waste. As Hemenway puts it, “Nearly every niche is tightly held, every habitat is packed full of interconnected species. Nature’s immense creativity ensures that anything fairly resembling a resource will be used as one–if one species can’t use it, another will.”

We can recognize these interconnections and cultivate them in a garden, and I believe we can do this deliberately in school communities as well, by developing niches in physical spaces, as well as cultivating enriching connections between content areas in our curriculum.


According to Hemenway, “the progression from bare earth to short annual weeds to tall perennials is called succession.” This principle trains the ecological gardener to be aware of land as “a dynamic system, not an unchanging still life. By viewing our landscapes as dynamic ecosystems, rather than as static collections of inert objects, we can create gardens that inherently grow in healthy patterns and directions.”

This recognition of the dynamic nature of communities is also necessary in a school ecosystem, where the complex interplay of diverse students and staff can either be repressed under a static model that inhibits growth and creativity, or nurtured, channeled, and harnessed to create a resiliency and stability within the school community.


A healthy and sustainable ecosystem is filled with a diversity of species. “Almost everything in [an ecological] garden has more than one function.” The biodiversity of species works to counterbalance and complement each other.

In a school ecosystem, this could apply to the recognition that staff and students can assume a multiplicity of roles. It also speaks to a recognition of the need for racial and cultural integration and inclusive environments.

These three principles can provide an entry point for us to apply ecological ideas to public school contexts and content. As we explore them together further, I have a feeling that some of these terms will change to become more relevant in a school setting.

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