Celebrating 50 Years of the Washington Youth Garden

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Originally an afterschool club, for 50 years, the Washington Youth Garden has been a place where children can learn to garden and how food is grown.

The Washington Youth Garden, a project of the Friends of the National Arboretum (FONA), turns 50 years old this summer.  The founders would be so proud of how this

program has grown and the amazing impact it has had on generations of DC young people.  Today the garden provides fresh produce to area farmers markets, trains teachers in professional development of gardening curriculum, and most important of all, it introduces hundreds of children to soil, worms, and all things vegetable.

The History
The Washington Youth Garden began in 1971 as the Washington Youth Garden Council, a city project.  The National Capital Area Garden Clubs were instrumental in joining with the DC Department of Recreation to start a garden club for third to fifth graders in local elementary schools. Two years later, the club members broke ground at the Arboretum.

For many children, it was their first introduction to how food is grown, and, after a few howls of concern at what they were asked to do, the children put their hands into the soil, finding worms and other bugs. The program at the beginning was not integrated into the local schools’ curriculum. It was seen as an after-school activity.

Over the years, the program increased the number of students participating but was limited by the budget and city funding for staff. In 1995, the city ended its Garden Council and the Friends of the National Arboretum incorporated the youth garden into its mission.

1995 was the same year that chef and activist Alice Waters launched The Edible Schoolyard Project in Berkeley, California. Teaching children about eating healthy, organic gardens, and getting children out in nature was catching fire everywhere. Waters made a visit to the WYG and was delighted by the success of the garden being operated at a renowned arboretum.

The one-acre Washington Youth Garden is part of the US National Arboretum and a program of the Friends of the National Arboretum, a non-profit that supports the work of the federal arboretum.

By 2000, the WYG staff began working in neighboring elementary schools during the academic school year. There was some resistance and every effort didn’t take hold. But it was an immediate success in some of the schools and eventually led to schools putting in raised garden beds on school property so more students had the opportunity to watch the garden grow.

In 2021, The United States Botanic Garden, the Office of the State Superintendent of Education, and City Blossoms released “Growing Strong: A Comprehensive Guide to Support all School Garden Programs in the District.” The guide helps teachers, community organizations, school administrators and even parents adopt strategies to bring gardening to DC students.

The Washington Youth Garden has pivoted from engaging with small groups of students to bringing the garden experience to greater numbers of children through a program launched in 2002 called Sprout Field Trips. It’s a one-day field trip where students are exposed to all the steps of gardening through innovative and fun activities. It is often a highlight of a school programs’ gardening class to come to the Arboretum and actually see what they have been learning in the classroom. The children learn that the Youth Garden’s one acre demonstration garden is large enough to produce 4,000 pounds of food. The food is distributed to local organizations and farmers’ markets.

In 2010, DC passed the Healthy Schools Act. Among other things, the Act promotes farm to school, locally grown, and sustainable agriculture practices in public and charter schools, even providing some much-needed funding for the programs.

Over the years the Washington Youth Garden has added structures to the garden like this canopied work space. It allows for kitchen demonstrations and space to work, like picking out seeds from dried plants for the next season.

Over the past decade, the WYG has become a leader on the school garden scene. For example, this year it has started a Summer Institute offering a professional development opportunity to teachers. Sixty teachers representing 20 to 30 schools will be participating. They will get tips on coordinating garden programs and maintenance of gardens, curriculum integration, will be introduced to the many resources available to them in our DC region to help make their programs even more successful.

Also this summer, 10 high school or college students will be part of the farm crew, a paid six-week summer internships. The program began in 2013 and the interns are Green Ambassadors for the program.

Takal Banks is a student at McKinley Technology High School in DC and signed up for the summer program because he wants to learn more about where his food comes from. Participating in the program was his first visit to the National Arboretum and he says the size of the garden and the Arboretum were a real surprise to him. He had no idea it was so big. He will rotate jobs every week getting to experience the wide variety of tasks required to make a garden grow. Many interns return for a couple of summers because they enjoy the program so much.

Volunteers and Donors
For 50 years, the program has turned to good hearted gardeners to volunteer in the garden. Of course last year, no volunteers were able to get out to the space, but as of mid-June, volunteers are returning. Capitol Hill resident Leanna Fenske is delighted to be back. Leanna and her family have been enjoying the Arboretum for years, and when she worked on her Master Gardening certification, she was encouraged by others in her class to fulfill her volunteer requirement with the WYG.

“There are many different jobs to do at the garden, so volunteers can match their skills and energy level to the job,” says Leanna. Being a former teacher herself, she enjoys interacting with the children, watching them exploring worms, butterflys and other natural wonders.

Chatting with other volunteers is also a great benefit to being a volunteer, and Leanna says time flies when you are weeding alongside your friends. She highly encourages people interested in gardening to check out the FONA website to get more information on getting started.

In addition to volunteering, the youth garden is always looking for financial donors and partnerships to keep the program thriving. If you are someone who likes to see tangible results of your contribution, there couldn’t be a better place to give. Contributions to the garden are tax-deductible.

For 50 years, the Washington Youth Garden has been a leader in children’s outdoor education. Sometime this summer, do yourself a favor. Take an afternoon out for a visit to the garden and delight in the herbs, vegetables and garden artwork. Celebrate the success of hundreds of hours of gardening by local children and their adult friends and mentors.

Rindy O’Brien congratulations all involved with the WYG, and wishes it another 50 years. To contact Rindy, rindyobrien@gmail.com