Clemson Extension’s school garden training growing strong

CLEMSON — What began with a seed planted in the Charleston area in 2012 has taken root in 16 counties in South Carolina and sprouted into 147 school gardens across the state … and counting.

School Gardening for South Carolina Educators is a horticulture-based training program, offered by Clemson Extension, designed to help educators grow successful school gardens. The program is part of a multi-agency, farm-to-school initiative, directed by the College of Charleston, aimed at improving academic and health outcomes among South Carolina children and opening the school nutrition market to local farmers.

“Farm-to-school increases access and availability of healthful, local foods while at the same time stimulating local economies,” said Olivia Thompson, associate professor and director of public health initiatives at the College of Charleston.

In 2012, Clemson Extension horticulture agent Amy Dabbs was approached by a graduate of Extension’s online Master Gardener Training, former Dorchester School District Two athletic director Bobby Behr, about using a school farm at Ashley Ridge High School, which was the first school in South Carolina to be Good Agriculture Practices (GAP) certified, as a model for similar programs in other district schools.

“He said, ‘I have this vision to have a school garden in every school in Dorchester District Two. Do you think you could open up a section of the Master Gardener Training for the teachers?’” Dabbs recalled.

Because Master Gardener Training involves many topics that wouldn’t be relevant to a school garden, Dabbs suggested a new, customized training to meet those needs.

Behr soon introduced Dabbs to Thompson, who was already working to develop an initiative in the Lowcountry for training cafeteria staff and farmers to improve access to fresh foods in schools.

Their collaboration led to the creation of the School Gardening for S.C. Educators program as part of the College of Charleston’s Food Systems Change Initiative funded by Boeing, the world’s largest aerospace company.

“Boeing invests in the Farm-to-School Initiative because it promotes life-long health and wellness habits while also promoting STEM principles in an outdoor classroom,” said Jessica Jackson, Boeing director of global engagement. “The collaboration of multiple partners has led to a successful, scalable model across South Carolina — impacting more students every year.”

The funding from Boeing allowed Thompson to hire teachers to write and map curriculum to state standards for the training, which led to the creation of a guidebook for the program entitled, “The Garden STEM,” a K-8 curriculum for garden classrooms.

From there, Dabbs worked with Zack Snipes, Extension associate agent in Charleston, to create a companion guide, “Seasonal Planting Guide and Calendar for School Gardens,” that provides teachers a schedule for gardens from early fall through the following summer.

For Snipes, whose passion for horticulture began as a child by spending time in the garden with his father and grandfather, the training program serves as an ideal way to plant that same seed with youth around the state.

“This is getting kids involved with agriculture and exposing them to something that is not taught in a lot of schools, especially the non-rural schools,” Snipes said. “If we can do nothing but put a garden in and expose them to a little bit about where their food comes from and their career possibilities, you never know what could come out of that.”

Snipes says the program employs a template, or “cookie-cutter-type approach,” for educators that virtually ensures their gardens will be successful by simply following the directions.

“The worst thing you can do is have a garden where all you do is go out there and weed, or you have a crop that doesn’t produce or you don’t have successful results,” he said. “This program helps to offer shortcuts for troubleshooting the gardens and a lot of the troubles that teachers have. It makes you successful. I wouldn’t say it’s guaranteed, but it’s pretty close, that you’re going to produce a crop.”

Since the partnership began, 463 state educators have received training through Extension’s five-week online course and follow-up hands-on workshop.

“The demand just keeps coming because teachers are finding out that it’s really working, and they’re having successes,” Dabbs said.

But once the training has taken place for teachers, the next step is bridging the gap between the horticulture and the children who will be exposed to it. That is where South Carolina 4-H — the youth development arm of Clemson Extension — enters the equation, helping teachers get their students into the garden and use the curriculum in a meaningful way.

“Our piece is to educate children and teachers on how to garden so the gardens are successful and they can see where their food comes from and, hopefully in the end, make better food choices,” said Patricia Whitener, Greenville County 4-H agent.

Thanks in large part to 4-H’s learn-by-doing approach, it is estimated that 69,000 South Carolina students visit their school garden annually and about two-thirds of school gardens in the program are still in use after the first year.

Another component is working with chefs and school cafeteria workers to make better choices for their menu offerings and educate them on using fresh produce more efficiently in the schools.

“The kids are not only growing squash and broccoli, but they are eating it too — from a local farm, hopefully,” Whitener said. “A lot of cafeteria workers are just used to opening a bag of fries and dumping them in the fryer. But there are techniques and skills you need to process squash and broccoli if it’s fresh, and we want to give them those tools to offer more fresh food in schools.”

Whitener said there are many school and community gardening programs across the country. Some focus on curriculum, others on horticultural training and others on funding. Clemson Extension’s program puts all those pieces together.

“Nothing content-wise that we have done is new or revolutionary,” she said. “What we have done with the program is connect the dots. We’ve synthesized and created a holistic program from start to finish that almost guarantees sustainable gardens. We’ve set them up for success.”

And that success begins with a solid foundation for teachers by providing turn-key garden kits and timed delivery of transplants and seeds.

“We’ve come up with a system between the 4-H agents and the Master Gardeners, and we just divvy the transplants up and deliver them,” Dabbs said. “We now deliver to almost 100 schools across the state four times a year.”

Kale and lettuce are delivered to the schools in February. Then in May, sweet potatoes and a package of seeds — squash, green beans, carrots, radish and beets — donated by Botanical Interests seed company for the next school year are delivered to ensure the gardens are sustained throughout the summer when school is not in session.

“There’s always something growing, so the kids can see that we have virtually a 365-day-a-year growing season in South Carolina,” Dabbs said. “We would not be able to do this without the funding by Boeing and the partnership with the College of Charleston. It’s almost magical the way this project has come about and keeps growing.”

For more information, contact Amy Dabbs at or 843-730-5208.

Author: Stephan Drew

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