Celebrating Earth Day

Mixed moss + reindeer moss (lichen) circle garden created by Antonia Demas

Planting a Garden

Honoring the Vital Legacy of Plants on Earth

By Antonia Demas, Ph.D.

It’s exciting to think that without the evolution of the humble moss, none of us would be here today” [1] Tim Lenton, University of Exeter, UK

Scientists believe that more than 450 million years ago the first plants slowly emerged on earth. They did not flower or contain seeds and reproduced by spores. The first plants were the mosses which also do not have roots. Slowly they spread on mineral rich rocks and eventually created soil as they decomposed. They grew on all continents and survived an astounding range of temperatures. Their requirements were for rain and sun but they were able to adapt to varied levels of each. During droughts they would hibernate and renew their vibrancy when rehydrated by rain. The rainwater leached out minerals from the rocks which contain potassium, calcium, and magnesium, which are necessary for new plant life. Over the course of millions of years, new plants which had vascular systems, flowers, and roots emerged. The mosses and other plants took in carbon dioxide and gave off oxygen which made it possible for new life forms (both plant and animal) to develop 40 million years ago. [2]

The evolution of soil being created led to a diversity of new life forms. Some of the ancient plants got their start millions of years ago thanks in large part to the mosses. The ancient plants that are still thriving today include the following:

  • Dawn Redwood, aka Dinosaur Tree
  • Horsetails
  • Norway Spruce
  • Cycads – including Sago Palm (See photo)
  • Lichens (not plants – fungus & algae)
  • Moss varieties
  • Dutchman’s Pipe
  • Ferns, including Staghorn Ferns (See photo)
  • Gingko Tree
  • Liverworts

Plants absorb great amounts of carbon, release oxygen and are a beautiful way to help mitigate climate change. Depending on your climate zone, the smaller plants that grow in warm climates such as the Sago Palm and ferns can be brought indoors as houseplants during the cold weather and will oxygenate the air in your house. The ancient trees such as Gingko and Dawn Redwood will grow for many years and will add shade and beauty to any outdoor landscape.

Arbor Day has been celebrated the last Friday in April and this year will be Arbor Day’s 150th Birthday! Plant a tree to celebrate this birthday – your tree very well may be alive in another 150 years! Most children would be excited to grow some of the same plants that grew during the age of the dinosaurs. Planting a dinosaur tree on Arbor Day will show our appreciation to these wondrous plants and creatures.

Sago Palm
Staghorn Fern

Ancient Plants as Houseplants

Ancient gardens are a fun way to explore our past.  I get pleasure from mine every day and the endurance of these plants surviving over millions of years when dinosaurs roamed the earth demonstrate their strength, resilience, and successful survival strategies.

Brontosaurus on Moss & Stone
Dawn Redwood, aka Dinosaur Tree

School Gardens – A Brief History

The school gardening movement has an interesting history which developed first as part of the progressive education movement which included outdoor labs for nature study, and later to provide food during the war years when many farmers were enlisted in the war effort and not able to grow crops. The school garden movement began in Europe in the early 1800’s where it first took hold in Austria, Sweden, and Belgium and then spread to other European countries. The first documented school garden in the US was in 1891 in Roxbury, Massachusetts at the Putnam School.

When schooling became mandatory educators were especially concerned about urban youth, many of them immigrants who struggled with the language and poverty. Gardening was used to teach life skills like reasoning and problem-solving as well as to promote the value of physical work in the fresh air rather than memorizing lessons in a stuffy classroom. The idea was that gardening was “not for the sake of the garden itself, but that it may lead the children into the life of the state” meaning to civic engagement. 

African American Children and Teachers in Independence Missouri School Garden

When World War I broke out and the U.S. got involved in the war there was a need to keep growing food to feed our troops and our allies fighting in Europe, as well as to provide food for those at home. Since men were sent off to fight the war, women and children were enlisted to grow food as an act of patriotism. Progressive educators used World War I as an excuse to adopt the first national standards-based curriculum supported by the federal government based on school gardens. The U.S. School Garden Army was created in 1917 with its motto “A garden for every child. Every child in a garden.” The government sent instructions to families on how to can and preserve the produce grown and the program became known as the “Victory” gardens with a massive effort to feed people during the war. Participating women and children developed new skills which many continued after the war ended.

“A garden for every child. Every child in a garden.”
Women work in a war garden, c. 1918. Location unknown. Library of Congress.

When the United States entered World War I in 1917, a need for food, rather than education, became the primary motivation for cultivating community gardens. Europe was in the midst of a food shortage. To increase exports, the national War Garden Commission called on citizens to create vegetable gardens to satisfy their domestic need for food and have surplus to send overseas. Gardening became a patriotic act and all citizens were encouraged to participate. To increase exports, the national War Garden Commission called on citizens to become “soldiers of the soil” by planting “liberty gardens” or “war gardens” to meet some of their domestic need for food. Gardening became a patriotic act.

Poster depicting children participating in farm work by planting a garden during World War I via Wikimedia Commons

When World War II occurred, the skills developed as part of the Victory Garden period during the previous war were put to good use. People believe that the World War II “Food for Freedom” gardening campaign was so successful (40% of all fruits and vegetables consumed during this time was produced in the 21 million Victory Gardens leading to the highest percentage of fruits and vegetables in our diet in recent times) because so many of the adults participating in the program had belonged to the U.S. School Garden Army during World War I.

Food in Schools

The World Wars brought attention to the fact that we needed to be more equable in the way we fed our population. School children did not have access to a hot lunch unless outside groups brought food to the school, usually run by volunteers. If you are interested in learning more about the history of the school lunch program, contact us about the publication Hot Lunch: A History of the School Lunch Program, by Antonia Demas. It became clear that the federal government needed to get involved in making food available to all school children, especially those who could not afford to purchase food or bring a nutritious meal from home. As any teacher knows, a hungry child is not ready to learn.

Both World War I and II exposed the fact that one third of the young men who tried to enlist in the armed services were rejected due to severe malnutrition stemming primarily from too few calories. Ironically, in today’s military, a third of the young men and women continue to be rejected for military service due to severe malnutrition but the cause is too many calories.

Another big problem that needed to be addressed was that there was a surplus of food produced in large part due to the success of the Victory gardens. Finally, after exposure that the richest country in the world had malnourished youth, the School Lunch Act became an Act of Congress in 1946. From its inception it served a dual purpose:

1. to assist with the health of the nation’s children

2. to ensure a market for farmers

School gardens were no longer seen as necessary for patriotism or nature study and their popularity dwindled. However, school gardens are experiencing a revival due in part to the fact that our children, especially poor children who get free breakfast and lunch provided by the U.S. Department of Agriculture have experienced a surge in diet-related diseases that previously did not affect children due to the processed nature of many of the foods served in schools and homes. It is fortunate that school gardens are making a come-back but the foods grown need to be part of the meal program and classroom education. Many people believe that children have an innate dislike for fruits and vegetables but without positive hands-on education that includes gardening and cooking, the kids are being sensible in rejecting foods they know little about.

I began integrating school gardens with food literacy education in the early 1970’s, while working with preschoolers at a Head Start program in Vermont. There are a few basic considerations that need to be addressed prior to working with children and community members in developing school or community garden programs. Future blogs will feature educational themes related to school gardens such as theme gardens, composting, creating healthy soil organically, companion planting, insects, food preservation, cooking from the garden and aesthetics.

The considerations we recommend you address prior to creating a school garden are:

  • Choose the site carefully – how much sun does it receive, do you have access to water, get a soil analysis done, do you need a fence, where are the tools going to be stored, are there plants that are incompatible with what you want to plant growing nearby, for example walnut trees emit a toxin that makes it difficult to grow tomatoes
  • Develop a plan to maintain the garden over the summer
  • Develop a plan to consume the food
  • Create a compost
  • Have a space where students/family members can sit, receive instruction and write in garden journals
  • Create an aesthetic design mixing flowers with vegetables and herbs
  • Have stepping stone paths and mulch so cultivated plants will not be stepped on
  • Maintain the garden year-round – there are few sights more depressing than an ill kept garden
  • Create opportunity for nature study experiments
  • Celebrate Earth Day in the garden and know that you are honoring planet earth!
Fenced garden to keep critters out
Tree stump seats & picnic table for outdoor classroom
First grade students enjoying garden

Earth Day

Earth Day became a national holiday April 22, 1970 as people recognized we were acting in careless ways that were destructive to the earth. Rachel Carson published Silent Spring in 1962 which was a wake-up call for many Americans. Oil spills, pesticides, and lead gas were spewing toxic materials into the atmosphere, water and soil, and the effects of these practices along with many others were measurable and destructive.

More than fifty years later we have clear evidence of the harm we have done to our planet by taking our precious earth for granted through our careless and destructive behavior. Climate change has reached a tipping point and we all must do what we can to reverse these practices starting now. Let us all do our part to honor our earth by listening to our environmental experts and engage in practices that will heal our beautiful planet. Planting gardens, growing trees, eating a plant-based diet are all steps we can take in this direction. We also must involve our children in taking personal positive and active steps in their daily lives to give hope to their future and the future of the planet.

Letter from Student, 1994

 Happy Birthday Planet Earth! 

“Blue Marble 2000”. NASA

[1] http://www.scienceclarified.com/everyday/Real-Life-Earth-Science-Vol-3/Soil-How-it-works.html#ixzz7P7ixVU9T

[2] ibid

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