When my son was in middle school, I received an email from a sixth-grade science teacher asking for parent volunteers to build a school garden. I told her I’d come by once or twice to lend some of my master gardening advice, but I wasn’t going to be hoodwinked into a long-term parent volunteer commitment. I’d been around the block. “I’m from New York. I can smell a rope-a-dope operation two zip codes away,” I told her.

Yeah, right.

I’ve been coordinating the middle school organic garden now for over three years. When an 11-year-old student says, “My experiences in the school garden have been one of the greatest times of my life,” you can’t leave. You’re stuck; sucker-punched by a 6th grader.

Just two months ago, Rey Mayoral, principal of Novato High School in Northern California, asked me to advise his student-run Garden Club. I reluctantly said yes, knowing that (again) once I started I’d never escape.

I decided if I were going to take on a high school garden, my goal would be to turn those teens into tree-huggers and flower enthusiasts for life, just like the junk food and videogame companies aim to do. Imagine children addicted to do something good that won’t kill brain cells, clog arteries or make them sick, obese and lackadaisical.

Academic success of America’s youth is strongly linked with their health. Children who eat well are more likely to perform well and have fewer behavior problems. This outdoor learning, away from sitting at a desk, encourages students to explore and problem-solve while building their self-esteem, nourishing their bodies and spirit and offering themselves an appreciation for the gifts of the natural world (even if they’re only pretending to look interested).

I couldn’t say no. How can any parent not be concerned when the United States is rated number one globally in childhood obesity, and the Center for Disease Control claims that any child born since 2001 now has a one out of three chance of becoming diabetic because of the abundance of cheap, highly processed food? On top of that, pediatricians now warn that today’s children may be the first generation of Americans since World War II to die at an earlier age than their parents. A school garden can literally be a lifesaver.

Studies conducted by the National Gardening Association show that students who grow their own food are more likely to eat fresh fruits and vegetables. They’re also more likely to taste unfamiliar vegetables, such as kale—the latest trendy green leaf loaded with vitamins and antioxidants. We grew over 50 heads of kale this season in both of the school gardens. Students took gorgeous green heads home to their parents and they made the high school principal, a meat and potatoes guy, eat kale, kale, kale! (They felt that was great payback.)

They also took home a strong, smart and sustainable message to their parents. They asked them why they weren’t composting at home, in their own backyards, when they learned in earth science class that our landfills are filling up at an alarming rate and that food scraps and other organic waste take up almost half of all landfill space.

They even brought their science books to me, showing facts about methane in the landfill; molecule for molecule, methane traps 25 times as much of the sun’s heat in the atmosphere as carbon dioxide, thus contributing significantly to global warming. They even quoted the words of our guest garden speaker, soil scientist Stephen Andrews from UC Berkeley: “Dirt is the stuff your nosey next-door neighbor digs up on you. Dirt is what comes out of your vacuum cleaner. It’s not soil. Soil is alive. Nothing grows in dirt. To make soil, add COMPOST!”

Besides the proven enhanced academic achievement in science and the outdoor education in farming 101, a school garden promotes healthy mental and physical lifestyles, instills an environmental stewardship ethic and encourages community and a sense of place. Almost as important as all of the above is the fact that a school garden simply looks fabulous! Transforming an old weed patch surrounded by pavement into a growing oasis is aesthetically healing to all.

“Our garden is centered in a place on campus that gets a lot of traffic, so the plants and life growing in it are able to be shared by many people,” says Mary Buckley, president of the Garden Club at Novato High School. “For students, having this small cacophony of growing plants reminds them that more is grown at school than the size of your binder or to-do list; there is life. For the students that are able to participate in building the garden comes a small increase in responsibility and along with this comes a large sense of accomplishment.”

In his best-selling book, Last Child in the Woods: Saving our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder, author and journalist Richard Louv writes, “Children of the digital age have become increasingly alienated from the natural world, with disastrous implications, not only for their physical fitness, but for their long-term mental and spiritual health. Outdoor, unstructured play is not just fun, but is also profoundly important to raising children who are physically, mentally and emotionally healthy.”

The good news? According to Dr. Michelle Ratcliffe, farm-to-school program manager for the Oregon State Department of Agriculture, school gardens are not a fringe element anymore. “I must have received 1,000 calls this past year from people asking me to help them start a school garden or farm-to-school program,” says Ratcliffe. There are now roughly 4,000 school gardens in California alone.

“There are other things that are even more important than the academic value of the garden: its affect on our children. In a world full of TVs, video games, the Internet and cell phones, the garden has instilled the intrinsic value of caring for our Earth and each other,” says Nicole Calmels, a middle school science teacher in the Bay Area.

“The friendships and camaraderie built from the hours turning the compost pile, taking soil samples, witnessing heads of broccoli grow from tiny seedlings and learning botanical names cannot be measured. The feeling of self-worth from contributing to such a project as part of a team cannot be tested. Our garden has raised a ‘science family’ in the classroom. As a teacher, I couldn’t ask for anything better than that.”

For more on school gardens and science curriculum, visit the California School Garden Network and the National Gardening Association Kids Gardening Program, and check out How to Grow a School Garden: A Complete Guide for Parents and Teachers by Arden Bucklin-Sporer and Rachel Kathleen Pringle.

Any donations of tools or garden products to school gardens would be greatly appreciated since public school budget cuts are growing like weeds. Also, contact Annie at dirtdiva.com with any corporate sponsorship ideas.