Learning While Growing | Interview with Sonya Harris of the Bullock Garden Project

This fall, we’ve begun our Garlic Garden Giveaway program. When you buy a garlic garden, we’ll gift a garlic garden to the classroom of your choosing — because we believe that growing should be part of every child’s education.

We talked to Sonya Harris, a passionate educator and founder of the Bullock Garden Project, to discuss our Garlic Garden Giveaway program and the importance of growing in schools.

Sonya Harris
Sonya Harris with Brie Arthur, Gardenuity’s VP of Horticulture

What does the Garlic Garden Giveaway program look like for you as a teacher?

I’m going to receive a MoGrow Garlic Garden from Gardenuity, and I’m going to start growing it with one of my former students. She’s one of my previous growing partners. My school only goes to third grade, and she’s a fourth grader, but she’s been gardening since she was in 1st grade. (Now, she’s a junior master gardener!) So, throughout, she’ll come back to the school every month, but I’ll still be monitoring the growth of it daily.

How is gardening an important part of a child’s formal education?

Kids need to see that education goes beyond the four walls of a classroom. Many times, kids don’t see the purpose behind the things we teach in the classroom. So what do you do? You can take them outside and show them that learning applies beyond the classroom — and the garden is a great way to do this.

I’m a special ed teacher, and I started this just as a teacher who was bored with the curriculum. Instead of, “Here’s a measuring tape. Measure your friend’s forearm,” you give them a seed and say, “Ok, you need to plant this a quarter inch into the ground and monitor the growth.” They’re really seeing true life — a real application of classroom concepts.

Essentially, growing in schools is the perfect way for kids to learn. It gets them outside, it gets them talking about the environment, and it gets them passionate about the earth and sustainability and about knowing where their food grows and about eating healthy.

You never know what you are inspiring by just giving a child the chance to engage with the earth.

How will this program help educate children? What can kids learn specifically from growing garlic?

Garlic is one of those things that so many of us buy at the store, and we don’t realize that the bulk of what we’re buying is coming from China (unless you’re buying it locally at a farmer’s market). So the Gardenuity garlic program opens an opportunity to teach kids about food miles, sustainability, and natural resources, and then tie it into a third-grade curriculum.

Additionally, it shows a child that you can grow this at home. Just because we’re doing this in a Gardenuity grow bag doesn’t mean you can’t do it without a Gardenuity grow bag. We’re going to show people and parents how easy it is — how simple it is to do.

As you mentioned, we’re gifting grow bags — container gardens — to schools. Do you think that the benefits will be the same as having a full garden plot?

Definitely. We serve a large population of children who are in apartments. We want to teach kids that they don’t have to have a huge plot of land. We know in the garden community about urban gardening, but we have to take this option to families. And there are schools that don’t have land! So being able to provide these garlic bags that you can grow on your patio to teachers — that’s how you start.

How long have you been teaching?

I’m about to go into my 22nd year.

What’s your favorite part of helping educate kids through the garden? 

I don’t like radishes, but I do grow them with my kids. To see kids from low-income homes who have never had a radish before, digging into the ground, pulling out a radish, and biting into it with the dirt still all over it…and when I try to stop them, they say, “It’s okay, it’s just worm poop.” They’re thrilled. How do you not want every child to be able to experience this?

And not just every child, but adults too! As an adult, you realize that there are so many benefits to gardening — you save money, you eat better, and it’s easy. Why are we not teaching this in every single school? Why isn’t this part of every single curriculum?

The Bullock Garden Project is a nonprofit organization, founded by you, that is dedicated to bringing garden education into schools. How did the Bullock Garden Project come about?

This is a bit of a story. I was teaching in a first-grade classroom, and my partner teacher and I were talking about how boring that math was. So I randomly had the crazy idea of starting a garden. I knew nothing about growing. I wouldn’t even touch dirt.

So I reached out to Ahmed Hassan who is the former host of yard crashers and asked if he did any volunteer work. Eventually, we got on the phone, we talked for about 2 hours, and he found out that I really knew nothing. So for about 2 years, it was a learning process. Ahmed directed me to different places so I could learn about gardening with kids.

A few months later, he called me up one day and said, “We’re just going to do this yard crashers style. So now, we have the beautiful Bullock Garden that was completely donated to us. People flew in on their own dime to help us out, and the Bullock Garden took off in its success — we won awards within our first year.

We realized that we need to pay this back somehow. We need to pay back the kindness that had been sent to us and our kids. I decided to make sure that any school that wants a garden gets a garden. So what we decided to do was start a nonprofit, call it the Bullock Garden Project so we can share with other teachers and schools what we did.

The beautiful thing is that we’ve been able to make some wonderful connections, and Brie is one of those connections. Brie is just as passionate as we are about making sure schools get gardens.

What are some of the challenges you’ve encountered as you’ve tried to advocate for growing in schools?

You have landscapers and people in the green industry who want to get into schools, but they don’t know how. Then you have schools who don’t have the budget but they want gardens. This is where Brie (Gardenuity’s VP of horticulture) and I work perfectly — she has the horticulture connections, I’ve got the education connections…Let’s bring the two worlds together, and let’s start growing in schools.

It’s just all about helping kids — helping kids grow and learn. As a special educator, I know that every child isn’t going to be a doctor or a lawyer. Kids need to realize that there is another world out there, and the green industry is an incredible option.

Any final words?

Globally, we really believe that every single child should be engaged with gardening. If we look at the numbers of professionals in the green industry as they dwindle and if we look at the people in high places that don’t believe our earth is in trouble, this is the generation we need to educate. We need children who are invested in protecting the earth and protecting our foods — children who understand that if you plant a seed, not only are you going to get something back from the earth, but you’re going to plant a future for yourself.

You never know what you are inspiring by just giving a child the chance to engage with the earth. So as a person, that is my passion. As an organization, that is what we stand for.

sonya harris