Begun in 2001, the Learning Garden in Venice, CA (http://www.thelearninggarden.org/) has quickly become one of the leading and largest school gardens in the US. Several groups and individuals have worked to transform a 60,000 foot wasteland of trash and weeds into a beautiful outdoor learning center filled with organic food and herbs. Teachers and students from Venice High School, members of the community, volunteers from numerous organizations, and other students from all age groups including those from acupuncture/herbal colleges and my alma mater, Pepperdine University, have spent countless hours growing and tending the plants and flowers. The garden, which contains a medicinal plant section, a pond, a patio used for tai chi, chi gong, and cooking classes, as well as organic produce, has become a premier outdoor classroom for students whose closest encounter with a vegetable might have been from a can or the French fries from a fast food eatery.
As a learning center, the garden provides a way for students to connect with the environment and with their bodies. As in most cities, nature is not an integral part of the greater LA area. By experiencing the growth of a tiny seed to a mature edible plant or beautiful flower, along with the physical labor that goes in to tending and producing our natural world, the students gain a deep appreciation for the food that nourishes their bodies. As Jackie Domack, former chair of the Health Education Department at Venice High School, states, "All the students are so proud to take home something they have grown in the garden. It's better than an A+ on an essay. You can cheat on an essay, or a teacher grades you subjectively, but there is no fooling a head of lettuce. It's that clear: you did well, and it's something you can use. Essays end up in the garbage, the lettuce ends up on your dinner table."
The garden also offers the opportunity for students of alternative medicine to learn more about the plants and herbs they will be administering to patients. Often, herbs arrive at clinics in their dried forms, and students never see what the living plant looks like. The garden allows the students to grow their medicine and experience the life force of the plants.
However, the most profound experience the instigators of the garden have had is how the garden is growing people. It has become a place of healing, providing nurture to those who come to nurture and tend it. The garden demonstrates that one of the best forms of "alternative medicine" can be cultivating the food we eat, the medicine we take, and the community to which we belong.
Lori Glenn, Managing Editor