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The School Garden: Education for Sustainable Living

Number 23 - December 2001

F. Capra





As the new century unfolds, our great challenge is to build and nurture sustainable communities; social, cultural, and physical environments in which we can satisfy our needs and aspirations without diminishing the chances of future generations.

What is sustained in a sustainable community is not economic growth or development, but the entire web of life on which our long-term survival depends. In other words, a sustainable community is designed in such a way that its ways of life, businesses, economy, physical structures, and technologies do not interfere with nature's inherent ability to sustain life.

The first step in this endeavor must be to become ‘ecologically literate’ i.e., to understand the principles of organization that nature has developed to sustain the web of life. The ecosystems of the natural world are sustainable communities of plants, animals, and microorganisms. There is no waste in these ecological communities, one species' waste being another species' food, so that matter cycles continually. The energy driving these ecological cycles flows from the sun, and the diversity and cooperation among its members is the source of the community's resilience.

The Center for Ecoliteracy in Berkeley ( is dedicated to fostering the experience and understanding of the natural world in primary and secondary education. Being ecologically literate, or ‘ecoliterate’ means, in our view, understanding the basic principles of ecology and being able to embody them in the daily life of human communities. In particular, we believe that the principles of ecology should be the guiding principles for creating sustainable learning communities. In other words, ecoliteracy offers an ecological framework for educational reform.

To understand the principles of ecology, we need a new way of seeing the world and a new way of thinking; thinking in terms of relationships, connectedness, and context. In science, this new way of thinking is known as systems thinking. It emerged during the first half of the century in several disciplines, in which scientists explored living systems, living organisms, ecosystems and social systems, and recognized that all these living systems are integrated wholes whose properties cannot be reduced to those of smaller parts.

Systems thinking was raised to a new level during the past twenty years with the development of a new science of complexity, including a whole new mathematical language and a new set of concepts to describe the complexity of living systems.

The emerging new theory of living systems is the theoretical foundation of ecoliteracy. Instead of seeing the universe as a machine composed of elementary building blocks, scientists have discovered that the material world, ultimately, is a network of inseparable patterns of relationships; that the planet as a whole is a living, self-regulating system. The view of the human body as a machine and of the mind as a separate entity is being replaced by one that sees not only the brain, but also the immune system, the bodily tissues, and even each cell, as a living, cognitive system. Evolution is no longer seen as a competitive struggle for existence, but rather as a cooperative dance in which creativity and the constant emergence of novelty are the driving forces (Capra 1996).

At the Center for Ecoliteracy, we have found that growing a school garden and using it as a resource for cooking school meals is an ideal project for experiencing systems thinking and the principles of ecology in action (Crabtree 1999). Gardening reconnects children to the fundamentals of food; indeed, to the fundamentals of life while integrating and enlivening virtually every activity that takes place at a school.

It is not a coincidence that gardening and preparing food from what grows in the garden have been integral parts of religious practice in many spiritual traditions, for example in the monastic traditions of Christianity and Buddhism. Gardening and cooking are examples of cyclical work, work that has to be done over and over again, work that does not leave any lasting traces. You cook a meal that is immediately eaten. You clean the dishes; but they will soon be dirty again. You plant, tend the garden, harvest, and then plant again. This work is part of monastic practice, because it helps us recognize the natural order of growth and decay, of birth and death, and thus makes us aware of how we are all embedded in those cycles of nature.

Unfortunately, we have lost this wisdom to a large extent during the recent, relatively short period of the industrial era. There is a major clash today between ecology and the economies of the industrial world. It derives from the fact that nature is cyclical, whereas our industrial systems are linear. Our businesses take resources, transform them into products plus waste, and sell the products to consumers, who discard more waste when they have consumed the products. Sustainable patterns of production and consumption need to be cyclical, imitating the cyclical processes in nature. To achieve such cyclical patterns, we need to fundamentally redesign our businesses and our economy (Hawken 1993).

At the root of this problem lies our obsession with unrestricted economic growth. Growth is a key characteristic of all living things, but on a finite planet not all things can grow at the same time. To every thing there is a season. While some things grow, others have to diminish. Just as the decay of last year's fallen leaves provides nutrients for new growth this spring, some institutions must be allowed to decline and decay, so that their capital and human talents can be released and recycled to create new organizations.

This age-old wisdom can be experienced and understood directly through gardening. In the garden, we learn about food cycles and we integrate the natural food cycles into our cycles of planting, growing, harvesting, composting, and recycling. Through this practice, we also learn that the garden as a whole is embedded in larger systems that are again living networks with their own cycles. The food cycles intersect with these larger cycles, the water cycle, the cycle of the seasons, and so on - all of which are links in the planetary web of life.

Through gardening, we also become aware how we ourselves are part of the web of life, and over time the experience of ecology in nature gives us a sense of place. We become aware of how we are embedded in an ecosystem; in a landscape with a particular flora and fauna; in a particular social system and culture.

For children, being in the garden is something magical. As a teacher in one of our Ecoliteracy schools put it, ‘…one of the most exciting things about the garden is that we are creating a magical childhood place for children who would not have such a place otherwise, who would not be in touch with the Earth and the things that grow. You can teach all you want, but being out there, growing and cooking and eating, that's an ecology that touches their heart and will make it important to them’.

In a school or botanic garden, we learn that a fertile soil is a living soil containing billions of living organisms in every cubic centimeter. These soil bacteria carry out various chemical transformations that are essential to sustain life on Earth. Because of the basic nature of the living soil, we need to preserve the integrity of the great ecological cycles in our practice of gardening and agriculture. This principle is embodied in traditional farming methods, which are based on a profound respect for life. Farmers used to plant different crops every year, rotating them so that the balance in the soil was preserved. No pesticides were needed, since insects attracted to one crop would disappear with the next. Instead of using chemical fertilizers, farmers would enrich their fields with manure, thus returning organic matter to the soil to reenter the ecological cycle.

About four decades ago, this age-old practice of organic farming changed drastically with the massive introduction of chemical fertilizers and pesticides. Chemical farming has seriously disrupted the balance of our soil, and this has had a severe impact on human health, because any imbalance in the soil affects the food that grows in it and thus the health of the people who eat the food. Fortunately, a growing number of farmers have now become aware of the hazards of chemical farming and are turning back to organic, ecological methods. The school garden is the ideal place to teach the merits of organic farming to our children.

In the garden we can observe and experience growth and development on a daily basis; the cycle of birth, growth, maturation, decline, death, and new growth of the next generation. The understanding of growth and development is essential not only for gardening, but also for education. While the children learn that their work in the school garden changes with the development and maturing of the plants, the teachers' methods of instruction and the entire discourse in the classroom changes with the development and maturing of the students.

Since the pioneering work of Jean Piaget, Rudolf Steiner, and Maria Montessori, a broad consensus has emerged among scientists and educators about the unfolding of cognitive functions in the growing child. Part of that consensus is the recognition that a rich, multi-sensory learning environment, the shapes and textures, the colors, smells, and sounds of the real world, is essential for the full cognitive and emotional development of the child. Learning in the school garden is learning in the real world at its very best. It is beneficial for the development of the individual student and the school community, and it is one of the best ways for children to become ecologically literate and thus able to contribute to building a sustainable future.

It is obvious that integrating the curriculum through gardening, or any other ecologically oriented project, is possible only if the school becomes a true learning community. The conceptual relationships among the various disciplines can be made explicit only if there are corresponding human relationships among the teachers and administrators.

In such a learning community, teachers, students, administrators, and parents are all interlinked in a network of relationships, working together to facilitate learning. The teaching does not flow from the top down, but there is a cyclical exchange of information. The focus is on learning and everyone in the system is both a teacher and a learner. Feedback loops are intrinsic to the learning process, and feedback becomes the key purpose of assessment. Systems thinking is crucial to understand the functioning of learning communities. Indeed, the principles of ecology can also be interpreted as principles of community.

As we move further into our new century, the survival of humanity will depend increasingly on our ability to become ecologically literate, to understand the principles of ecology and live accordingly. Thus, learning in the real world, in school and botanic gardens, will become ever more important. This is an enterprise that transcends all our differences of race, culture, or class. The Earth is our common home, and creating a sustainable world for our children and for future generations is our common task.

Le Jardin Scolaire: Un Lieu Pour l’Éducation Durable


Le grand challenge aujourd’hui est de créer des communautés durables - communautés conçues de telle sorte que leurs styles de vie, les affaires, l’économie, les structures physiques et les technologies n’interfèrent pas avec la capacité inhérente à la nature de maintenir la vie de façon durable. La première étape dans cet effort est de devenir lettré en écologie c’est à dire de comprendre les principes d’organisation que les écosystèmes ont développé pour maintenir le cycle de la vie.
Etre ‘lettré en écologie’ ou ‘écolettré’ veut dire comprendre les principes de base de l’écologie et être à même de les appliquer dans notre vie quotidienne. Pour comprendre les principes de l’écologie, nous devons penser différemment, en langage scientifique on appellerait cela adopter un nouveau système de pensée. Cela signifie penser en terme de relations, connections et contexte. Dans cet article, l’auteur montre comment ‘l’écoliteracy’ peut servir de cadre à l’éducation du 21ème siècle et explique comment la création d’un jardin à l’école permet de façon idéale d’expérimenter de nouveaux systèmes de pensée et l’écologie en action. Le jardinage reconnecte les enfants aux valeurs fondamentales de la nourriture- et même à l’importance fondamentale de la vie- tout en intégrant et mettant de la vie dans virtuellement chacune des activités de l’école.

El Jardin Escolar: La Educacion Para una Vida Sostenible


El gran desafio de nuestros tiempos es la creacion de comunidades sostenibles – comunidades disenadas de tal manera que su forma de vida, negocios, economia, estructura fisica, y tecnologia, no interfieran con la capacidad inherente de la naturaleza para sostener la vida. El primer paso en este camino tiene que ser el alcanzar un profundo conocimiento y comprension de la ecologia, o sea, comprender los principios que rigen los ecosistemas, los cuales se han desarollado para sostener la red de la vida.
El tener tal conocimiento y comprension ecologica – digamos el ser eco-conocedores – quiere decir comprender los principios basicos de la ecologia y poder trasladarlos a la vida cotidiana de las comunidades humanas.
Para comprender los principios de la ecologia necesitamos nuevas maneras de pensar, conocidas en la ciencia como systems thinking (pensar en sistema). Significa el pensar en terminos de las relaciones, conecciones y contextos. En este articulo el autor demuestra como la eco-comprension puede servir de marco para la educacion en el Siglo XXI, y como el cuidar un jardin escolar es el modo ideal para que los ninos puedan tener la experiencia de pensar en sistema y de ver la ecologia en accion. La jardineria conecta a los ninos de nuevo con los fundamentos de los alimentos – y asi con los fundamentos de la vida – a la vez que animan y se integran en practicamente todas las actividades escolares.