Growing up in the city of Long Beach, California didn't give Dianne Swanson the opportunity to have her own garden. But summer trips to Grandma's and Grandpa's in Iowa allowed Dianne to eat fresh vegetables all summer. She didn't know it then, but Grandma's garden would make a lasting impression on her adult life.
Even though she had a small vegetable garden as her kids were growing up, it wasn't until 1997 that she got the idea of using gardens to help children other than her own. While conversing with a city councilman on an airline flight, she found out about the Master Gardener program. After completing the training Dianne was itching to do more gardening. In 1999 she became a second grade teacher at the Los Cerritos Elementary School. She noticed a vacant grassy area outside her classroom and asked the principal for permission to grow a small garden. Her husband Scott helped install a small, raised bed garden for a special education class, but Dianne didn't stop there. With help from another teacher and her husband, they eventually built a 60-foot by 80-foot garden with 22 raised vegetable beds. The garden also has roses, sunflowers, salvias, artichokes, culinary herbs, and scented herbs. What started as a garden for her class has turned into a resource for the entire school of 500 students.
"The kids love eating raw food," she says. "They eat raw broccoli, peas, and green beans right out of the garden because they grew it and it tastes so good. They even loved the sour-tasting sorrel we grew."
Even though they live in an agricultural state, many of her kids don't know where their food comes from. This garden helps them make the connection between plants, the environment, and the food they eat. It also teaches them healthy attitudes about nutrition and eating good food. Often kids start gardens at home because of their positive experiences at school.
Dianne wasn't satisfied with just starting the garden. She wanted it to grow. She wrote grants to the California Fertilizer Foundation for general support and to National Gardening Association for tools and supplies. At the Long Beach School to Work Consortium Dianne brought together local colleges, unions, and tradesman to help teach kids about careers. In the process she got them to build a chicken coop and a tool shed for the garden. Now the garden looks like a farmyard with eight hens, a duck, a rabbit, and many birds, butterflies, and insects.
Although it's clear what the gardens have done for the kids at Los Cerritos Elementary School, they have opened doors for Dianne as well. She was voted "Rookie of the Year" for the Agriculture in the Classroom Program in 2003, and she has started mentoring other teachers who are interested in starting gardens for their classes. Her School and Garden Nutrition Coalition helps teachers find start up money, learn what's acceptable to the school district, and inspires them to integrate gardening, cooking, and nutrition education into their classrooms.
Diane's school garden experience has led to opportunities for tremendous personal growth even beyond Long Beach. She's been to South Africa as part of an urban agricultural tour and to Brazil as part of a National Geographic Society teacher-training grant.
"I never thought I'd travel to these places," she says. "To think it all started with the simple desire to grow plants with my kids."