The Global Garden

By Doni Kobus

Fuego, by Sebastian

In order to meet the challenges of the changing world, children today must develop a deeper understanding about how the world functions. They need to value human diversity, and understand that different people have different perspectives, depending on their culture, nationality, and socioeconomic circumstances. We must give children an education that includes the ethic of caring -- for plants, animals, the environment, and other people. Much of this can be explored in the garden.

In addition to offering children opportunities for learning thematic, interdisciplinary concepts, gardens can help them learn to appreciate similarities and differences among people as well as plants. In the context of the garden, children can develop the skills to think both creatively and critically about global, cross-cultural issues.

To explore how a multicultural curriculum can be integrated into a school garden program, let's visit two schools: a fictitious one in California's Central Valley and a real one in the Guatemala's rainforest.

In California

Step into the garden at Heritage School in Trieste, California, where sixth grader Ma Vang, her grandparents, and a handful of her classmates are harvesting greens traditional in the Hmong diet. They have tended this plot for months with the help of other students and volunteers. Students have been growing greens traditional in the cultural groups they represent. Today they'll prepare the greens to share with fellow students and their families and friends who work in the garden. First they collect and record data: They are comparing growth, nutritional value, and flavor of the various greens.

Many students have parents, grandparents, and other relatives who are political refugees from various regions of the world. In the garden, family members with gardening skills are welcomed, and they share seeds native to their homelands. They learn English from each other, as well.

Students in this "diversity garden" experience the ethic of caring in many contexts. Sixth graders have examined issues of hunger in their community and have started a Plant-A-Row for the Hungry project as a result. They compost vegetable and fruit scraps from home and the school cafeteria, and have learned that adding it to the soil improves plant health and flavor.

Last year fifth graders compared their physical efforts to their school gardening pals in Copal AA, Guatemala. This year their focus is nutrition and wellness. The Heritage students have discovered that their Mayan friends have a healthier diet and get more physical exercise than they do. Each student is keeping food and activity logs to exchange with Copal AA.

The students know that they are lucky to have computers with Internet access, and they wish their friends in Copal AA had the same. Parents, students, and teachers are exploring ways to use the garden to raise money, possibly to buy a computer with satellite access for Copal AA. Since the Mayan children are bilingual and speak Spanish at school, students, teachers, and parents at Heritage School volunteer to help translate correspondence. Some students are motivated to learn Spanish so they can help, too.

The children are anxiously awaiting indigenous vegetable and fruit seeds from Copal AA to try in their garden. They want to find local gardeners who save seed, start a seed bank and exchange at the school. The sixth-grade students will develop protocols for videotaped interviews with these local gardeners.

In Guatemala

The village of Copal AA (pronounced KO-pa-LA in the Mayan language) lies along the banks of the Chixoy River, 30 miles south of the Mexican border. The 500 villagers were all resettled there the government. There are no roads and no electricity in the region, and during the eight-month rainy season, it takes two hours hiking on dirt paths and four hours by truck to reach the nearest hospital. The closest town with a marketplace, shops, and a pharmacy is about 15 miles upriver. The village has a health clinic and a solar-powered radio transmitter. A typical family makes about $300 per year selling cardamom or coffee beans. Every family has a garden.

The Copal AA schools have received international assistance, and the middle school is one of the few in Guatemala offering a holistic education, according to Heather Dean, a teacher from Ohio. Last year, Dean developed and taught an eighth-grade ecology class at the school, incorporating Mayan culture, art, theater, science, social science, and organic agriculture.

The course was built around the Mayan symbols of the four elements: water, air, fire, and earth. Students examined their consumption of firewood for cooking (fire), and constructed a solar oven for cooking beans from their garden and for sterilizing drinking water (water). After studying water pollution by chemical fertilizers, they explored alternatives to improving soil fertility (earth), such as using green manure and composting. They learned to make organic pesticides out of garlic, marigolds, and chilies, and to avoid using chemical pesticides that could pollute the water and food supplies.

Dean explains that students aren't just defining the problems their village and the region face, they're researching solutions. For instance, after examining air pollution and the destruction of the ozone layer (air), they wrote letters to the president of Guatemala with suggestions for protecting the atmosphere.

The people of Copal AA have recently learned that their river, around which their lives revolve, is to be dammed to create hydroelectric power for development. This will displace people from nine villages upstream and dry up the source of water for fifteen villages downstream, including Copal AA. All the villages would lose their most critical transportation and irrigation source.

Children watch the adults in the village grapple with the powerful political and economic forces that will change their lives. The students, in turn, are developing their own voices through a theater project in the school run by volunteers from a Columbian theater group, Brown University, and Oberlin College. They wrote a play about the likely effects of the dam and presented to local villages.

In 2006 the school will offer courses in Mayan law, community-based anthropology, and grant writing and accounting for community development projects. Teachers also hope to initiate an organic macadamia nut-growing project to provide hands-on agricultural experience for students and make use of their parents' knowledge and skills. The project is projected to generate $10,000 to $15,000 in six years and make the school economically self-sustaining.

This article originally appeared in NGA's print quarterly, Growing Ideas. This newsletter features projects, profiles, and tips that address topics of interest to home, school, and community gardeners. Growing Ideas is mailed free to paid Supporters of NGA. Sign up for a free 6-month trial subscription (two issues).

Adding a Cross-Cultural Dimension to Your Garden Curriculum

These two profiles illustrate how a garden-centered, thematic curriculum can encourage learners to ask critical questions that expand their horizons and deepen their investigations of plant and human diversity. By exploring the following questions, students can hone their understanding of global, cross-cultural issues

  • What kind of garden, life, and school experiences might be the same as, or different from, those of the children in Copal AA?
  • What kind of edible plants do students think are grown in the garden in Copal AA? How do these compare to those in your garden? What else do you think the villagers might eat? Where could you find seeds to grow Mayan garden plants?
  • There are no vehicles in the Mayan village. How does this affect the garden? How would your students and your school garden be affected if there were no vehicles?
  • How would your garden curriculum and your students change through a relationship with student gardeners in a Third World country?
  • How are water issues in Copal AA or other Third World villages the same as, or different from, water issues in your own community or school?
  • How can you find out who saves heritage seeds in your community? How can you save the gardening history of these individuals as a resource for your school and community?
  • How can children gain cross-cultural gardening knowledge and values?
  • Are there refugees in your community or school? What were their experiences? Did they bring seeds with them from their homelands?

Doni Kwolek Kobus, Ed.D., Professor Emerita, California State University, Stanislaus, is a member of NGA's Board of Directors. For more information about Copal AA, contact

This article originally appeared in Growing Ideas, a quarterly print publication free to NGA Supporters. To sign up for a six-month (two-issue) trial subscription, click here. To download a sample issue, click here.

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