Beyond Our Own Gardens

By now I'm sure you have heard one too many prognostications about the new millennium -- from estimates of unparalleled electronic wizardry to dramatic increases in life expectancy. My contribution to the collective wisdom comes from something much more basic -- the act of gardening.

For the past five years, the statement on the front of the National Gardening Association's brochure has said, "Gardening is more than just a (great) hobby." And each day we attempt to prove that claim by creating and supporting programs that demonstrate how gardening is so fundamental to life itself that it becomes a rejuvenating and sustaining experience. If gardening nurtures the environment, ourselves, and each other, then it certainly qualifies as an important contribution to the new millennium.

For many home gardeners, gardening is an activity that puts fresh vegetables on the dinner table and provides escape from daily stresses. It's a time to feel in touch with the earth. But for millions of people around the globe, the family garden plot is much more than a hobby that enriches their lives. It represents and sustains life itself.

As we begin the next century (I like to take my millennia 100 years at a time), we at NGA feel it is important to expand our perspective from North American soil to parts of the world where gardens are essential for survival. If we can then share this vision with the 25,000 teachers and 500,000 students who use the NGA GrowLab program in about 10,000 schools nationwide, we will have begun to create a worldwide network of gardeners who better understand our global interconnectedness.

One vehicle for this awareness is our new partnership with TechnoServe, a nonprofit international economic development organization. With funds from the U.S. Agency for International Development, we will create a link between grade-school students in the United States and the Third World. The goal of the Making Connections Through Gardening project is to get students to share and thereby increase their knowledge of the role that home gardening and agriculture play in the developing world.

In the project, students in the United States, one Central American country, and one African country will learn about the environmental impact of gardening and agricultural practices in developing countries. The project will create ambassador clubs in 100 schools in the United States that will share activities and communicate with partner schools in the other two countries. Each club will receive curriculum materials developed by the National Gardening Association. Teachers will be given information on how to incorporate the materials into their social studies programs, and the entire program will be made available to parents and children on our Web site ( Students themselves will exchange information on our Web site as e-mail pals.

NGA has long waited for an opportunity to expand its mission beyond the borders of its own gardens, and it is particularly satisfying to do this first with children in the Third World.

David E. Els is the former executive director of National Gardening.

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