Katie Carlson Creates an Army of School Gardeners

On a dreary Sunday in March, the courtyard of Garden Hills Elementary School looked like a scene from the animated children’s television series, “The Busy World of Richard Scarry.”

One man wearing an “I Dig My School Garden” T-shirt swept up the remnants of a demolished greenhouse. A pack of moms scooped up handfuls of leaves and tossed them into garden beds.

Newcomers followed a petite woman— second-grade teacher Katie Carlson, who was relieved by the sight of more volunteers— to help transport a pile of concrete pavers.

Katie was responsible for drawing more than 80 volunteers to Garden Hills Elementary for the annual garden clean-up. She teaches second grade at Garden Hills and revived the program less than two years after it had been left to languish.

The school received the Captain Planet's Project Learning Gardens grant last year. Captain Planet helped build the first eight raised beds and supported the garden with a mobile cooking cart and lessons for each grade level. 

“We took out all of the old, rotten garden beds and built nine new ones,” Katie says. “I recruited one teacher from every grade level to oversee one garden bed.”

Katie admits that the first year was just as experimental for her as it was for the kids. They navigated the Internet together to learn about what was happening in their garden throughout the growing season.

With gardening integrated into the school’s curriculum, the students increased their appreciation for fruits and vegetables. Katie knew the garden was making a difference when kids began choosing more fresh produce in the lunchroom.

“By learning about the benefits of healthy eating and how much effort it takes to get the carrots in the cafeteria, they make better choices,” she says.

A significant part of making better food choices is the chance to eat food that is grown locally, such as vegetables from a school garden. In the past two years, Katie has received plenty of help from parents and colleagues and organizations like Captain Planet Foundation, FoodCorps Georgia and Atlanta Families' Awards—all helping to build a local food movement one school at a time.

For Katie, the way her second-graders have taken ownership of the garden has been the most rewarding aspect of digging in the dirt.

“The first thing that grew was one radish,” Katie laughs. “I had to cut the radish in 21 equal parts so everybody had one teeny tiny piece, and you would have thought I gave them a million bucks!” And that made Katie, the educator, feel like a millionaire.

Captain Planet's Project Learning Gardens
This program provides schools with strategies for building effective and long-lasting garden-based learning programs. Teachers at pilot schools are provided with hands-on training, curriculum aligned to national standards, lesson kits filled with supplies, a schoolyard garden, fully-equipped garden cooking cart, and summer garden management intern.