School garden programs began in Canada early in the 20th century in response to disturbing changes in society, as industrialization and urbanization increasingly challenged traditional beliefs, and stimulated ever–increasing migration to the cities. Many commentators feared the collapse of rural society and the weakening of the nation owing to the deterioration of what was believed to be Canada’s major industry: agriculture. Abandoned farmhouses had become mute symbols of rural malaise.
The solution to this problem, advanced by some theorists, was a reeducation of rural society by changing the school curriculum to adapt to new circumstances. Traditionally, primary education had been viewed as religious and moral, based on rote memorization of the “3 Rs”, Latin and Greek, and character development. New educational theories imported from Europe promoted a shift from traditional book-centred education to a child-centred one, where the individuality of every child and the right to education designed to suit the child’s own nature, needs, aspirations, and interests were stressed. Learning was to be interesting, even exciting, as the child “learned by doing” and the “doing” was to be related to the world outside the classroom. The natural world was considered to be one of the more relevant teaching aids, because of its closeness to a child’s own experiences.
One of the first nature-study/school-gardens curriculum programs in Canada was sponsored in 1904 by the Montreal philanthropist William C. Macdonald. The three-year pilot program was successfully administered in 25 schools divided equally among Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island.
By 1907, the Ontario Department of Education, in conjunction with the Ontario Agricultural College, had established guidelines to be followed or used as models in schools across Canada. The model included issuing teacher-training certificates in nature study and school gardens; provincial grants for tools, plant material and seeds, distribution of helpful publications, and establishing nurseries to supply the needs of the gardens. A revised curriculum integrated school-garden activities into daily lessons, so that garden activities served as a concrete basis for learning mathematics, reading, composition, drawing and spelling.
By 1914, thousands of Canadian school children had wielded hoes in a school garden. Devoted to vegetables, annuals, and some cereals, the usual layout was a no-nonsense design of individual and group plots squared off, rectilinear, and static, often sited behind the school.
However, by 1916, much of the idealism supporting school-gardens curriculum was fading. Many factors contributed to the eventual demise of the school-garden program. Criticisms ranged from failure of the gardens to thrive because of inadequate summer care, to the difficulties of obtaining enough water. But the main problem was the ideological split present nearly from the start of the program between idealistic, educational reformers who wanted to produce well-educated children, whether urban or rural, and those who supported a mainly vocational curriculum dedicated to producing children eager to become future farmers of Canada.
Many rural parents also criticized the program claiming that it kept their children off the educational ladder that led from primary school to university and a city career. In the end, financial restrictions caused by the Depression finally killed the school garden.
For more details on this movement, see Edwinna von Baeyer’s Rhetoric and Roses: A History of Canadian Gardening, 1900 to 1930.