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Roots and Shoots, An Intergenerational Garden

Articles: Roots and Shoots, An Intergenerational Garden

I got to love gardening. The senior garden volunteers made everything fun. I learned a lot from them.

Brook, 5th Grade, Walter Hays Elementary School

Friendships mark the Roots and Shoots program. Photographs by Kiyomi Masantani
Friendships mark the Roots and Shoots program. Photographs by Kiyomi Masantani

It is a warm sunny day in October and the Elizabeth F Gamble Garden in Palo Alto is abuzz with parents pushing strollers, pre-schoolers chasing butterflies, artists painting scenes of a pumpkin patch and twenty third graders working in the Roots and Shoots Intergenerational Garden.

The Roots and Shoots garden has become a model for how school children and seniors can work together to make a garden grow. Every week third graders from Walter Hays Elementary School walk to the garden where they are met by their senior volunteer mentors. Together, the children and volunteers spend almost an hour and a half together planting, nurturing, and harvesting a garden full of edibles and colorful flowers. They may be planting seeds or weeding, or checking the broccoli for harvesting. If it’s ready, they will eat it as part of their snack that day; any excess will be shared with the Ecumenical Hunger Project. The children learn about many things relating to plants, including the worms and beneficial bugs they encounter while they work in their garden. In the process, both students and volunteers develop lasting and meaningful friendships.

The program was started in 1985 on part of the 2.3 acre estate that Elizabeth F Gamble willed to the City of Palo Alto. A granddaughter of Edwin Percy Gamble, co-founder of Proctor and Gamble Corporation, Elizabeth loved to garden and grew beautiful flowers that she shared with the community. After her death in 1981, several groups vied for the use of the property, but in 1985, the Garden Club of Palo Alto succeeded in getting approval of a plan that would establish a non-profit corporation to restore the garden and operate it as a community horticultural foundation. The Roots and Shoots program was started soon after that by Mary McCullough and Molly Brown, with the help and encouragement of Kiyomi Masatani, a third grade teacher at Walter Hays School.

In the Beginning

There were few gardening programs for children at the time and the idea of a program for seniors and children was certainly unusual. I asked Molly, Mary, and Kiyomi what prompted them to start the Roots and Shoots program.

Mary McCullough: “Elizabeth Gamble was especially interested in children and seniors. Therefore, it seemed a natural to start an intergenerational garden as the first project at Gamble Garden.”

Molly Brown: “I originally started a small gardening program at the Mountain View Senior Center to provide an opportunity for older people to share their interests and enjoyment of gardening with children from a nearby school. Mary asked if we could do a similar program with the new Gamble Garden Center. We named it the Roots and Shoots Garden, with older volunteers being the Roots and the children from Walter Hays School being the Shoots. Kiyomi Masatani, the third grade teacher, was key to its success with her faithful support and suggestions.”

Kiyomi Masatani: “I had been gardening with my students in a small garden plot in one corner of the kindergarten playground for a few years and was delighted when Mary and Molly asked if I would help pilot a gardening program involving senior citizens, and help write a curriculum. At that time, learning about plants was part of our science curriculum and gardening seemed a natural way to extend our classroom studies.

“The intergenerational component of the Roots and Shoots gardening project served two purposes for me. The senior citizens would share their love and knowledge about gardening as well as provide role models for the children. I hoped that working with the seniors would help break down the negative stereotypes of ‘old people’ and develop positive attitudes toward aging. In our mobile society, not many children have grandparents living close to them. The seniors would help fill this void. In turn, the seniors would be stimulated by working with young children.”

And so the Roots and Shoots program was launched, built on solid experience and high expectations. But, I wondered if these seasoned professionals experienced any surprises or unexpected benefits?

Mary: “The garden proved to be more than I expected in terms of the environment it provided for seniors. For example, the garden became a perfect and meaningful place for one of Palo Alto’s favorite teachers, Marie Green, to continue to share her love of children and nature after her retirement. The program provided a place for those who might be lonely as they’ve grown older and their own children have moved away. Special friendships developed between the surrogate grandchildren and their surrogate grandparents.”

Molly: “I realized that every class visit to the garden held surprises and discoveries for all of us. Mother Nature always furnishes us with surprises in a garden. I also was surprised at the popularity of the idea of a children’s garden and the realization that so many subjects can be taught in a garden. A garden lets children have sensory experiences and hands-on learning that may not be available in the classroom.”

Kiyomi: “I remain in awe each year watching how excited the children and senior volunteers get as changes occur in the garden, from sowing seeds to the blossoming of flowers and the harvesting of vegetables. For the children, nibbling on snacks made from plants they raised is always a highlight. High school students and college graduates who visit me always recall fond garden memories and ask about their volunteer.”

Sixteen Years Later

The Roots and Shoots program is still flourishing today, sixteen years after its beginnings. It meets from 10:15 am to 11:30 am almost every Thursday during the school year. Three third grade classes rotate their day in the garden so that each class meets every third week; each volunteer works with three different class groups.

The garden has moved from a corner of the property to its own prominent place near the center of the property. It was perfectly laid out for children by a farm advisor from the University of California Cooperative Extension. There are twenty-two beds, most three feet wide so that children can reach all parts of the plot easily. Two beds are larger and are perfect for growing pumpkins and melons; some have trellises for vegetables, such as beans, that need support. Each year the students make a new scarecrow for the garden. There is also a raised bed designed for wheelchair access. Each volunteer and her students are responsible for three plots. All of a volunteer’s groups work on all three plots during the entire school year. Thus, they experience all phases of a garden.

Writing to her family in 1996, Elisabeth Ellsworth gives a vivid synopsis of a day at the Roots and Shoots Garden.


Each day in the garden includes a lesson about plants, their cycles, and the other critters found in a garden. The students work on a related project, and then spend time working in the garden. One group of students prepares a snack, mostly of produce from the garden. As the children eat their snacks, they share things they experienced or found in the garden. Then they hug their volunteers and head back to school.

Back at school in Ms Masatani’s class, the children discuss what they learned and did. They write about each lesson in their garden journals. Art projects and creative writing assignments related to the garden are also included as part of the classroom activities.

Edie Miller and I currently oversee the program. Edie started with Roots and Shoots many years ago when she was asked to manage the volunteers and their tasks. She admitted that she knew nothing about gardening at the time, but had experience managing volunteers. Today she is an expert not only at managing volunteers but at gardening too. A retired biology teacher and software developer, I now love to work on lesson plans and other aspects of the garden, and I represent Roots and Shoots on the Gamble Garden board of directors.

A Cornucopia of Benefits

Kiyomi Masatani notes that: “The children develop loving relationships with the volunteers as ‘garden grandparents.’ The volunteers have a captive and appreciative audience in the children. The volunteers act as role models, sharing their knowledge, enthusiasm, energy, and wisdom with the children. The children learn how to be respectful to the senior volunteers and develop positive attitudes about aging. The children also learn how to garden and appreciate the work it takes to grow food. The children are provided with hands-on experiences and perform a community service by sharing their harvest with the community Food Closet [a local program for feeding the homeless and poor].”

Tsegereda’s letter to Mrs Smith, one of the longtime volunteers, confirms Ms Masatani’s observations. (see letters above)

According to Helen Carnes, another third grade teacher, “The intergenerational part of the program is important. The children get in touch with the idea of life cycles progressing blended in with the garden where the cycles are in evidence. The garden provides a way to see life as ongoing, and there is such variety in the people who volunteer. They have had all kinds of careers. The students see these still energetic and active people. Life does not just stop at fifty.”

A student-made scarecrow protects beds of sunflowers and other crops
A student-made scarecrow protects beds of sunflowers and other crops

A Few Testimonials

So what do the children say when they go on to other grades?

“We got to plant different kinds of vegetables and prepare snacks. The snacks were really good! The volunteers at the Gamble Gardens help me know that even though people are old, they can still do things. “ (Sara – 4th grade)

“I like gardening. The garden volunteers made gardening so easy and fun. I enjoyed the satisfaction of knowing I could grow something. It was really special.” (Julia – 4th grade)

“I liked learning how to plant so I could help my dad in the garden at home and earn money. “ (Jack – 4th grade)

“I liked harvesting the vegetables to make snacks. The snacks were delicious! “ (Brendan – 4th grade)

“I got to love gardening.” (Eliot – 5th grade)

And what do the volunteers say?

Lucy Smith has been a volunteer since the first year of the program. “ I keep coming back because I love gardening and I love kids. I really like working with the children.”

Susan MacDonald is a new volunteer. “The kids learn that lettuce comes from the ground, not from a market.”

Tinker Spar has been a volunteer for fifteen years. “I love working with and watching the kids in the garden. They are so curious and open and enjoy working in the garden. They love bugs. In fact, they love life.”

Sheila Mandoli works with many intergenerational groups. “This program has longevity and seniors see the complete aspect of gardening. There is also a great variety in the volunteers and the garden is the glue. I would like to see the program spread to more schools.”

How do the parents view or benefit from this program?

According to Kiyomi Masatani, “The parents are elated when their children arrive at home proudly declaring that they ate a slice of lemon cucumber for the first time, pulled out a huge patch of broccoli that had bolted, helped harvest lettuce for the community Food Closet, baked yummy mint cookies, or planted Iceland poppies. The children are eager to begin gardening at home and share their knowledge with parents. Some even begin building compost piles in their back yard.”

All agree, Roots and Shoots is a wonderful program. Currently, children from Walter Hays school are the only ones participating in the program. The curriculum guide, developed by the three founders of the program, is used by schools all over the United States. The program serves as a model for other schools. And Gamble Garden is beginning to branch out so that it is available to more children.

Many young mothers bring their toddlers here to experience the Garden. We encourage schools to bring their classes here for an hour-long volunteer-led field trip. The nearby Junior Museum and Zoo now offers programs for budding gardeners using our facilities. The role of gardening with children will expand and Gamble Garden will help that movement.

Molly Brown moved to Virginia and started a program in the Waddell Elementary School there. Asked if the Palo Alto Roots and Shoots experience was instrumental in starting that new program, she replied, “We could not have done it here without the existence of the Palo Alto garden as a forerunner. When I showed the garden club here in Lexington the slide show of the Palo Alto garden they immediately wanted to sponsor one here. When I showed it to the Waddell faculty they said, ‘Yes, let’s do it!’

“In Palo Alto, we had developed lesson plans that were essential in duplicating the garden here. In the six years of our Roots and Shoots school garden at Waddell we have greatly expanded the program into an all school garden for kindergarten through fifth grade, with a different theme garden for each grade. In addition we have expanded the volunteer resources to include university students, parents, seniors, and civic club members. Building on the Palo Alto curriculum, we have published a Down to Earth Handbook, which includes all areas of organization as well as lesson plans for each grade. Many other schools have developed school gardens from our model at Waddell, but we all can be grateful to the Palo Alto Gamble Garden! It has given birth to school gardens in many states.”

The fruits (vegetables) of their labors
The fruits (vegetables) of their labors

The Final Analysis 

According to Molly Brown the benefits of Roots and Shoots are many. “For volunteers, it’s the contact with young children, sharing the joys of gardening with them and experiencing their excitement and enthusiasm, and simply developing close friendships with the younger generation.

“For children, it’s the close contact with nature, a sense of beauty in the garden, pride of ownership, a sense of responsibility, and perhaps a stronger self-esteem. In addition, it gives them an opportunity to be with older people as good friends.

“For teachers, it extends the classroom learning to the out-of-doors and allows much more sensory learning. They are not burdened with a new program but are provided with volunteers who do the planning, teaching, and gathering of necessary materials for garden activities. They, too, become good friends with volunteers. I strongly believe that a school garden is a win-win program for everyone involved.”

“And not to be overlooked,” adds Jean Swanson, president of the Gamble Garden board of directors, “is that Roots and Shoots teaches the importance of plants in our lives. It demonstrates to children and adults the full cycle from seed to food.”

As the day ends at Gamble Garden the children go back to school, the artist puts away her paints, and the parents and toddlers return home. But, on another Thursday, you will see the “Roots” supporting the “Shoots” and the “Shoots” nurturing the “Roots.” Perhaps, next time, the broccoli will be ready for harvesting.


If you should like to visit…

The Gamble Garden, open during daylight hours daily, is at 1431 Waverly Street, Palo Alto. Information on the garden and on Roots and Shoots is available from 9 am to noon, weekdays, at 650/329-1356, or from the garden’s website at www.gamblegarden.org.

To order the Roots and Shoots Curriculum Guide, call Gamble Garden.

To learn more about the Roots and Shoots garden at Waddell Elementary School in Lexinton, Virginia, visit their website at rootsnshoots.go.to. To order the Down to Earth Handbook, email Molly and Dirck Brown at dirck@rockbridge.net.




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