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City Gardens Educate, Create Community

December 21, 2021


A big city might not seem like the best place to learn about nature and the environment. But one group in Washington, D.C. is trying to change that.

City Blossoms is a non-profit organization with the goal of bringing nature to children who might not otherwise have green spaces. The organization has assisted in creating green space at seven elementary schools, two high schools and 18 early childhood centers across D.C.

City Blossoms has its own educators who teach children lessons centered on gardening and nature.

Tara McNerney is the director of City Blossoms and a former teacher. She said City Blossoms’ lessons center on environmental science, healthy living skills like cooking, and artistic expression.

In the garden, students can learn environmental ideas like plant lifecycles or ecosystems. But teachers can also use the green space for reading lessons by reading a garden-related book or learning nature vocabulary. Even math could be taught in the garden.

“We’re really able to adapt into the subjects that the teachers are wanting to teach,” McNerney said.

City Blossoms’ partnerships with local schools are meant to last at least three to four years. City Blossoms assists schools in creating and caring for the garden. But the gardens are mainly operated by the schools. McNerney said she partners with schools that already understand the importance of an outdoor education and that want to keep the garden at the school for many years.

“It’s a school-run program that City Blossoms is supporting,” McNerney said. “We don’t want it to be a ‘plop and drop’ garden where it’s seen as a City Blossoms garden and it’s not fully embraced by the community, because that won’t really lead to a sustainable garden program.”

Volunteers work at the LaSalle-Backus Elementary School garden in Washington, D.C.

Volunteers work at the LaSalle-Backus Elementary School garden in Washington, D.C.

In City Blossoms’ five other community gardens, the organization supports the garden and provides nature activities for the community. But the spaces remain community-driven.

“At the end of the day, we’re not designing these sites,” said Isa Zambrano. She helps maintain the community spaces for City Blossoms. “The community designs it. Every garden takes the shape of the community and the culture that exists there.”

Young children and older adults have gotten involved with the community green spaces, said Kendra Hazel. She oversees the community gardens for City Blossoms. During cooking lessons, for example, people will tell about meals that are special to their culture.

The community gardens represent the diversity of D.C., Zambrano said. “It’s like putting pieces together of so many different people and cultures and neighborhoods.”

Food deserts

Healthy food is hard to find in some parts of Washington, D.C., especially in poorer areas. About 15 percent of D.C. is a “food desert.” A food desert is an area where the nearest supermarket is more than 1.6 kilometers away. In the two poorest sections of Washington, D.C. — Ward 7 and 8 — there are just three supermarkets for 160,000 people.

Seven of City Blossoms’ gardens are in those two wards. Part of the organization’s mission is to “grow in spaces that might not otherwise have green spaces, and might not have fresh, healthy food,” McNerney said.

For older students at two D.C. high schools, students learn how to grow and harvest crops through City Blossoms’ Mighty Greens program. Students in the program also sell their vegetables and herbs at local farmers markets.

Signs welcome visitors to Girard Children's Community Garden in Washington, D.C.

Signs welcome visitors to Girard Children’s Community Garden in Washington, D.C.

‘Getting your hands dirty’

While City Blossoms’ main goal is to teach children, many older families and adults have also gotten involved. The organization holds gardening lessons for all ages.

Hazel said the pandemic has made people want to spend more time outside experiencing nature.

“People have really woken up to the fact that green spaces are really important in our communities,” Hazel said. They have realized the good that comes from “being outside and being disconnected from technology, and just being,” she added. “And getting your hands dirty.”

I’m Dan Novak.

Dan Novak wrote this story. Ashley Thompson was the editor.

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Words in This Story

garden n. an area of ground where plants such as flowers or vegetables are grown​

adapt v. to change your behavior so that it is easier to live in a particular place or situation​

plop v. to sit or lie down in a heavy or careless way ​

embrace v. to accept readily or gladly​

sustainable adj. able to last or continue for a long time​

maintain v. to keep (something) in good condition by making repairs, correcting problems, etc.​

diversity n. the state of having people who are different races or who have different cultures in a group or organization​

supermarket n. a store where customers can buy a variety of foods and usually household items​

ward n. one of the sections into which a city or town is divided for the purposes of an election​

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