SCHOOL GARDENS taught thousands of Cleveland children and adults the joys and challenges of gardening for almost 75 years. Managed by the CLEVELAND PUBLIC SCHOOLS and staffed by trained administrators and teachers, the school system’s nationally recognized garden program fell victim to drastic budget cuts in 1978.
Cleveland’s school gardens were part of the national movement for civic beautification that began in the 1890s, intending to remedy the unseemly disorder and unplanned ugliness of American cities. Gardens, like urban parks, were also meant improve city dwellers’ lives. School garden advocates believed that children, especially, benefited from gardens that would make them healthy citizens with useful skills and virtues and an appreciation for nature. School gardening also meshed well with the mission of early twentieth-century education reformers like John Dewey who maintained that children learned by doing – digging in a garden, for example - as well as by sitting in a classroom.
These ambitious goals attracted wide support for school gardens during their first years in Cleveland. The school district’s program began in 1904 with small summer gardens for elementary students on the grounds of Warren, Outhwaite, Detroit, Willard and Stannard Schools. Cleveland’s Home Garden Association provided assistance the first year, but the school district operated independently after that. So successful was this effort that in 1905, the school system established a department of school gardens with Louise Klein Miller as director. The program expanded to include eight elementary school gardens and students’ home gardens, which would remain an important part of the program. In 1910, the Memorial School Garden opened on the site where 172 children and two teachers had died in the COLLINWOOD SCHOOL FIRE two years earlier. After West Technical High School, the city’s first vocational high school, opened in 1912, its greenhouses became the supplier of plants and seedlings for the whole gardening program. Parochial school students were welcome if they lived within walking distance of a school garden. At annual festivals, the best individual gardeners and best school garden won prizes and got their names published in the Cleveland Plain Dealer (PLAIN DEALER). The U.S. Department of Agriculture in praised the school district and its director as leaders of the school garden movement in 1912. The next year, 5,000 children signed up to garden at school or at home; the Cleveland Plain Dealer applauded their contribution to the “city beautiful movement.” As gardening became more closely integrated into the curriculum, science teachers oversaw the school gardens and visited home gardens twice a summer. Children whose gardens received satisfactory grades won a certificate at the end of the season. Contemporary photos show children, from kindergarten to high school, industriously tilling tidy rows of lettuce and radishes or happily harvesting baskets of beans, corn, squash, or tomatoes. Some children preferred flowers, especially in home gardens.
During the next difficult decades, the school gardens continued to serve the community in important ways. In 1918, Cleveland children enrolled in the U.S. School Garden Army, doing their bit to win WORLD WAR I by raising and canning produce. In`1920, the gardens of fifty schools raised produce worth $100,000, according to the new program director, O.M. Eastman. The previous director, Miller, had publicly pointed out that the program needed more land – and land owned, not rented - by the school district so that gardens could be permanent. In 1922, the school board began to buy acreage for the large tract gardens that eventually replaced most of the small gardens on the school properties. The school district’s radio station broadcast gardening instructions to classrooms. During the Great Depression, school staff wrote and distributed pamphlets on gardening and provided seeds, fertilizer, and tools for home gardens and the city’s “relief gardens” for the unemployed. The gardens’ civic importance was acknowledged by the Garden Center of Greater Cleveland (CLEVELAND BOTANICAL GARDEN) that in 1936 began to award the annual prizes to the winning gardeners and gardens in Cleveland and surrounding suburbs. School gardeners enlisted again when the United States entered WORLD WAR II. Ten thousand children signed a pledge to do their “patriotic duty” by maintaining a victory garden. Adults signed up for classes so that they too could plant victory gardens.
The school gardens achieved their greatest growth in the post-World War II years. The Cleveland Plain Dealer gave them a boost when it instituted its Green Thumb Program in 1955 for young gardeners in Cleveland and the suburbs, who competed for prizes like tickets to baseball games. The rival CLEVELAND PRESS sponsored some school gardens. An official school district publication in 1964 listed six large garden tracts at these elementary schools: Benjamin Franklin (5.5 acres); Harvey Rice (7 acres); H.W. Longfellow (1.25 acres); Kentucky (2.1 acres); Miles (3.2 acres); Miles Standish (2.7 acres), and Paul Revere (2.2 acres). The Memorial Garden included 1.2 acres, and there was a small (.2 acre) garden at the Children’s Aid Society. Six PUBLIC HOUSING estates also had school gardens: Cedar-Central, Garden Valley, Outhwaite, Riverside, Valleyview, and Woodhill. There were vocational programs and greenhouses at West Technical High School and Thomas A. Edison School. In 1969, the school board leased Washington Park (WASHINGTON RESERVATION/WASHINGTON PARK) and in 1970, opened Washington Park Horticultural Center for vocational training in horticulture.
The school garden movement had always promised much: a beautiful, bountiful city and children who were not only skilled gardeners but healthy, virtuous citizens. “Children grow in gardens” was the program’s motto. In March 1974, a garden administrator made the familiar case for the seventy-year- old program: it taught children self-discipline and good work habits, was a model for school gardens around the country, and harvested $463,111.84 worth of produce in 1973. But the program also had always had its critics, who did not consider gardens educational or who believed them too expensive. The small sums that children paid for seeds and fertilizer had never covered the costs of the program. And in 1978, the school board, under great financial pressure created by the court-mandated order to desegregate its schools, cut school gardens from its budget. The cross-town busing of students starting in 1979 would have disrupted the program anyway. There were anguished protests from residents who had grown up in or near the gardens. A much diminished version of the program survived through 1979 with volunteer help and private donations.
This pioneering school garden program left Cleveland a tangible legacy. The Washington Park Horticultural Center survived; in 2021, it was administered from East Technical High School. The gardens behind Riverview Tower became the Refugee Empowerment Agricultural Project (REAP), home to gardeners from around the world. The large tract gardens at Kentucky, Benjamin Franklin, and Miles Standish (now Michael R. White) Schools became community gardens. Less tangible: the civic memory of Clevelanders gardening together perhaps inspired the urban farms and the dozens of small community gardens that still bloom throughout the city, still trying to make Cleveland more beautiful and its gardeners, better people.
Marian J. Morton
Cleveland Public Schools Horticulture Program collection, Cleveland State University Special Collections.
Lawson, Laura J., City Bountiful: A Century of Community Gardening in America (2005)
Mader, Joel. Cleveland School Gardens (2010)