Learning in the Garden, Part 1

image: Kasey Wooten

The learning garden is a designed outdoor space meant to help children engage with and learn about the natural world, as well as provide opportunities for physical, mental, and social growth. Spaces that serve this purpose can vary hugely in form, size, and design, as well as programming, funding, and intended users. We are excited to present a three-part series of learning garden case studies to better understand how these spaces come to be, how they function now, and what we can learn from them for future projects.

The first of these case studies is the school garden A.P. Giannini Middle School in San Francisco. We asked Kasey Wooten, the school’s Outdoor Science and Garden Consultant, some questions about the facility and her role in its daily operations. Kasey is an educator with a background in farming, and she brings these skills, along with a personal interest in sustainability and in how young people relate to the food they eat, to enrich the education and growth of her students.

-Brenna Castro, ASLA, Children’s Outdoor Environments PPN Co-Chair

Where is your garden located? Is it a public or private facility?

The garden is located in the Outer Sunset in San Francisco, just 10 blocks from Ocean Beach. It sits in the middle of the school, protected by buildings on three sides. A.P. Giannini (APG) is a public school and the schoolyard, including the garden, is open to the public on Sundays 9am-4pm through the Shared Schoolyard Project.

The location of the garden on the A.P. Giannini Middle School campus / image: aerial photos from Google Earth
The location of the garden on the A.P. Giannini Middle School campus / image: aerial photos from Google Earth

Please tell us more about your garden facility—what is the total size, and what types of amenities and spaces does it include, such as garden beds, prep area, or an outdoor classroom? How many children use the garden?

The garden is approximately 20,000 square feet, including 17 raised vegetable beds, a small greenhouse (7’x8’), a mobile chicken tractor and a chicken run (8’x16’) where our 6 chickens sleep (they free-range in the garden during school), a 3,400-square-foot native area, 30 young fruit trees, and a learning circle where classes meet. There are 4 compost stalls, a cob wood-fired oven, a small shed, and an outdoor kitchen of sorts with a solar cooker, a solar oven, various electric cooking equipment, and a sink. We have almost every part of the garden on drip irrigation. We installed a rain catchment system with 500-gallon storage tanks and a small rain garden in November of last year and are preparing to welcome a top-bar beehive within the next couple of weeks.

Vegetable beds and greenhouse, with chicken coop and outdoor kitchen in background / image: Kasey Wooten
Vegetable beds and greenhouse, with chicken coop and outdoor kitchen in background / image: Kasey Wooten

In an average week, over 500 students have class or volunteer in the outdoor classroom. I have a steady group of volunteers who come before and after school and during lunch, and my classes often consist of over 30 students at once. APG has about 1,300 students, and most of them interact with the garden in some way or another throughout the year.

What is your role in the design/programming of the garden, and what are the goals of the garden and garden programs?

I am afforded a lot of agency in the design and programming of the garden, allowing me to build curriculum out of current projects and events and student interest. I plan and manage the planting of crops, natives, and trees; purchase supplies; raise funds (outside of the budget provided by the PTA) and apply for grants; plan curriculum and projects; make repairs; plan and lead volunteer work day events; and anything else the garden might need to ensure its continued success.

The outdoor classroom and garden program aims to connect APG youth with the natural world and their food system. It is my job to make meaningful links between the garden and math, science, literacy, nutrition, the arts, and social justice. Furthermore, I encourage students to be caretakers of themselves, one another, and our environment. In learning skills of self- and interdependence, students leave APG with the inspiration to create a sustainable future for their community.

Learning in the outdoor classroom / image: Kasey Wooten

Who uses the garden? If you have children with varied ages and needs using the garden, how do you program for them?

The garden is used by middle school students in grades 6-8. Since most classes are comprised of more than 30 students, they usually spend part of the class time in several groups doing garden activities. These group tasks include turning and sifting compost, planting and transplanting, cultivating soil, mulching, collecting seeds, harvesting and making class snacks, painting, building, cleaning the chicken coop, and garden tidying. I also work with several special needs classes, some of which have students who have mild to severe learning disabilities. I am fortunate to work with talented special needs teachers who help me develop lessons that most benefit students, practicing occupational therapy, social skills, and coordination while in the garden.

Students working on group tasks / image: Kasey Wooten
Students working on group tasks / image: Kasey Wooten

How was the garden funded?

The garden was initially funded by a $100,000 grant about 7 years ago. The grant paid for a garden circle where classes gather, 8 vegetable beds, landscaping, irrigation installation, and other initial infrastructure. Additional projects were funded by the Parent Teacher Association and built with teacher and parent volunteers, including the greenhouse and the chicken coop. The PTA decided to hire a part-time garden consultant in 2013 and I took on that position in 2014. As of last year, my position has full-time hours and the school pays for a portion of it, in addition to the PTA. The PTA provides a $2,000 budget for supplies and I meet other needs through DonorsChoose.org and grants. This year we were lucky enough to receive a grant from the Public Utilities Commission to build our rainwater catchment system as well as a grant from the Whole Kids Foundation to install a top-bar honeybee hive.

Chicken coop and garden circle, where classes are held / image: Kasey Wooten

From your perspective, what would you want designers to know about what works in your garden?

I am very grateful to have the school protecting the garden from harsh ocean winds as it makes a warmer microclimate suitable for most crops. The food forest is up higher in an unprotected area beyond the main garden and is having a harder time getting established, probably due to the high winds.

We have hose attachments in three separate places in the garden (and now four including the water catchment system) and I find that it saves a lot of time when students are filling up watering cans.

The sundial in the middle of the garden serves as our outdoor kitchen area and it being spacious and open allows for easy access for students to get involved.

Learning to cook in the outdoor kitchen, and the solar cooker in use / image: Kasey Wooten

What is the students’ favorite part of the garden?

Students love spending time cooking and eating in the garden. I am always getting asked what we are making next. Some favorites are garden pizza, fava greens pesto, deviled eggs, and lentil soup. As for their favorite place in the garden, students find magic in the native area. It is a large space that is less structured, allowing students the opportunity to explore, hide, and play, almost as if they are out in nature, away from the flurries of city life.

A quiet place to study in the native garden area / image: Kasey Wooten

Answers by Kasey Wooten, Outdoor Science and Garden Consultant at A.P. Giannini Middle School

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