An intricate web of diverse life forms thrives in the garden. Our school food gardens are home to a multitude of coexisting plants (both wild and cultivated), pollinating insects, birds, small mammals, worms, soil organisms, sometimes even toads and more! Besides the rich opportunities for teaching and learning, biodiversity provides many benefits to the school food garden.
Diversity = resilience
Unlike monoculture, (the practice of devoting large areas of land to a single crop), diversified agriculture means growing a wide variety of plants all mixed together. One of the advantages of greater diversity in food plants is reduced susceptibility to disease and pests. Monoculture is a fragile system because one plant-specific pest (for example the corn-borer), can attack and destroy an entire crop – whereas if you’re growing many different foods, the loss of one won’t mean losing your whole harvest. Since it’s susceptible to pests, monoculture tends to be heavily dependent on chemical pesticides, whereas small-scale and diversified food production is more successful using organic (chemical-free) methods. For example, inter-planting a diversity of foods deters pests by making it more difficult for them spread between like plants. We use special combinations of plants, known as companion planting, to improve plant health and production.
Today, far fewer varieties of fruits and vegetables are available in the supermarkets than there were a few decades ago. The mass-produced varieties which dominate the market have been selected mostly for their ability to travel or endure storage for great lengths of time, compromising their diversity. Children growing up today tend to have the misconception that apples are only red or green, tomatoes are beefsteak or cherry, and that mint is a flavor of candy. Now imagine growing a purple carrot, sweet cherry tomatoes with stripes, white eggplant or a round lemon cucumber! We’ve also grown seven varieties of basil in one season, and six different flavors of mint. All these and more heirloom varieties are treasures of the school food garden. Preserving seed diversity is valuable both as a teaching tool and living genetic resource.
Pollinators and their habitat
Alongside the food plants we grow for people to eat, we grow many plants that provide food for the butterflies, bees, beetles, wasps, moths and other pollinating insects. Pollinator habitat is essential since so many food plants depend on insect pollination to reproduce…according to Pollination Canada, one third of the foods we eat requires insects for pollination! Since different plants bloom at different times of the year, by encouraging biodiversity of plants, we’re providing a sustained food source for pollinators all season long.
Biodiversity and kids
Most children are totally fascinated by bugs, grubs and butterflies and their experiences with insect life in the garden helps them to appreciate the vital role that these tiny creatures play in the health of the larger environment. Hands-on learning about biodiversity helps children understand the symbiosis between plants, insects and all living things. Another benefit of growing a diversity of foods on school grounds is that since kids like different things, the more different textures, colors and flavours available in the garden, the greater the potential to engage students. For example, children who’ve decided they don’t like red tomatoes, may be excited to taste a yellow, green or purple tomato!