Space available for growing food is limited on our urban school grounds. We practice space-intensive gardening and use a multitude of techniques for organic agriculture. Small spaces are well suited to companion planting (using combinations of plants that assist each other’s health and growth) and inter-planting (mixing the types of plants that grow near each). Their experience with organic urban agriculture means that children are actively participating in a viable alternative to industrial monoculture. As an organization we’re thus increasingly better equipped to contribute to a growing body of knowledge about organic community gardening in the inner city.
Why not use pesticides?
Organic gardening is a multi-faceted approach to gardening. One of the central elements of organics is not using chemical pesticides, herbicides or chemical fertilizers. The dominant industrial agriculture system is heavily dependent on these chemical inputs to increase production on massive monoculture farms, but there are many harmful side effects of agricultural chemicals on pollinating insects, water quality, human health and soil health. For example, nitrogen fertilizers are often applied in a concentration too high for plants to absorb, so nitrogen runoff pollutes the water system and causes algae blooms that disrupt healthy waterways. Pesticide runoff contaminates the ecosystem of surrounding farms and will accumulate in the food chain, while pesticide residues on foods accumulate in our bodies. Many pesticides are carcinogenic, yet giant agro-chemical companies that monopolize their production use genetic engineering to modify food plants so they tolerate a higher dosage of pesticides. The agro-chemical giants have a history of releasing products such as genetically modified organism (GMOs) and pesticides (such as DDT) without proper testing for human or environmental health effects. Chemical pesticides also have devastating effects on populations of honeybees and other wild pollinators. Pesticides are often indiscriminate so they eliminate all the beneficial insects in addition to the pests. In the long run, as pests develop increased tolerance to chemicals and the soil becomes saturated with fertilizers, the soil life and biodiversity that provide natural defences are weakened. Chemical inputs also create economic dependency that can be crippling to small producers.
Pesticide residues on conventional fruits and vegetables are harmful to children’s growing bodies, perhaps more harmful than to adults. As children harvest and taste such foods in the garden, we make sure to use the “teachable moment” to mention the importance of washing supermarket fruits and vegetables.
Organic gardens as living classrooms
It’s exciting and inspiring to engage kids on school property that’s a working alternative to the chemically-dependent industrial monoculture system. In our teaching, rather than spend time explaining the frightening facts about pesticides, we offer hands-on experience with small-scale and biodiverse organic agriculture that’s healthy for people, pollinators and the urban ecosystem. Unlike in industrial agricultural production, we treat the soil as a living organism and rely on making our own compost to feed plants and increase their resilience and natural defences. We include habitats for butterflies, bees, moths and beneficial insects as a vital part of our food garden. The food we grow is safe to eat right off the plant!