Early School Gardens in Philadelphia

Untitled [Leaf 31, Image 1 ] SB51.M441.31.01.jpeg

Photograph of the Stephen Girard School garden (Teachers and students (individual students hold cultivators, hoes, rakes and produce), garden plots in foreground, garden sign [Schedule for Summer] in background) Forms part of the Perla A. Matthews Photograph Collection (PC SB51 M44

The First School Gardens in Philadelphia

In the first decade of the twentieth century, urban reformers began to create school gardens for children, particularly those of immigrants and lower-income residents. Educators feared urban life would have a negative effect on children. Gardens, they hoped, would be a way to connect youth to nature, teach them responsibility, and improve their physical health

The creation of the first named school gardens in Philadelphia began as a collaboration between the Philadelphia Vacant Lots Cultivation Association and its sister organization the Philadelphia Civic Club early in 1901.

The Vacant Lots Association was founded in 1897 and its mission was to help the poor secure and cultivate gardens on vacant lots in the city. The Civic Club, founded in 1894, took on activities that included for example lobbying for women’s representation on the all-male Philadelphia School Board and lobbying for the establishment of factory inspections to support the child labor laws. The School Gardens Committee of the Civic Club, chaired by Elizabeth Leighton Lee (later head of the Pennsylvania School of Horticulture for Women) in collaboration with the Vacant Lots Association established their first school gardens located on the maps below:

In 1903, R.F. Powell, of the Vacant Lots Association, recommended that the collaborative school garden effort be extended and suggested that an offer be made to the Board of Education to the effect "… that we will be at all expense of securing and preparing suitable school gardens on condition that suitable and sufficient teachers and supervisors be supplied by the Board of Education to manage and teach the children and cultivate the gardens."

Early in 1904, the Public Education Association rolled out the big guns with a public lecture. The presenters included Fannie Griscom Parsons, founder of the DeWitt Clinton Garden in New York City and Herbert D. Hemenway of the Hartford School of Horticulture. The addresses aimed to give a clear idea of school gardens and their educational value, and to develop the possibility of opening a garden in Philadelphia. With a special appropriation by the Board of Education of $3500, the first two Board of Education “experimental” gardens opened on May 12, 1904.

Philadelphia School Gardens 1901-1919

By 1919, there were 30 large school gardens, 22 smaller gardens, 18 flower beds in school yards, and 24 box gardens in the buildings. And, it’s reported that there were 38 garden teachers, assistants and gardeners.  The teachers connected with the large gardens worked six days a week, assisted by a gardener 3 days a week.

Generous support for this exhibition is provided by the National Endowment for the Humanities CARES Act.

Early School Gardens