Sowing Stewardship

West County DIGS

Do you remember when kids climbed trees, made mud pies, and played freeze-tag outside until dark? Across the nation, many children grow up in unsafe neighborhoods and attend under-resourced schools that are surrounded by barbed wire, acres of blacktop, and portable classrooms. Outside time is at a minimum and way too much time at both home and school is spent planted in front of a screen. This lack of exposure to nature prevents children from developing the curiosity and appreciation for green space, insects, animals, and plants that is crucial in inspiring them to become the future stewards of our planet.

photo of children having a good time working in a gardenphoto Graciella RossiWest County DIGS’s purpose is to engage students in nature-based garden education
programs that foster environmental leadership and nutrition awareness.

That’s why DIGS builds gardens in schools.

West County DIGS (Developing Instructional Gardens in Schools) was formed in 2007 by a small group of passionate, dedicated educators who recognized the need to connect children to nature. The project’s purpose is to engage students in nature-based garden education programs that foster environmental leadership and nutrition awareness throughout the school year.

How can school gardens make a difference in today’s intoxicating world of social media and fast food? DIGS believes that to develop ongoing compassion for nature and smart nutrition, we must connect with it locally and routinely. By integrating gardening into daily experiences, students build a deep curiosity about, and respect for, nature that will become the foundation necessary to face global problems like climate change, overpopulation, deforestation, and hunger (to name a few).

Garden activities provide a dynamic setting for building the skills needed in the increasingly diverse world of the twenty-first century – creativity, critical thinking, communication, and collaboration. In the garden all senses are ignited. Students watch seedlings transform into hearty plants, hear bees buzz on pollen, feel the warm soil with their hands, smell fresh herbs, and taste a variety of vegetables harvested from the garden. They conduct experiments, integrate art, and work in teams to solve problems. Classmates learn how to reduce waste, conserve water, and create wildlife habitat.

School gardens are also places of peace, where reflection is welcome, feelings are soothed, creativity is encouraged, and wonder is celebrated.

In nine years, DIGS has grown to provide teacher and leader training, curriculum development, garden resources, and advocacy to over 30 schools in West Contra Costa County, California, many in low-income neighborhoods. This expansion has earned DIGS community support that includes local government, the school district, foundations, and individual donors who have enabled us to initiate several school-based programs.

Learn more about this Earth Island Institute project at

At Mira Vista School, in Richmond, CA, we are piloting a thriving model garden and robust curriculum of healthy eating and nutrition awareness for first through third grade students. Results and resources developed during this one-year program will be shared with all district schools. At the “Growing Green” program underway at Madera Elementary School in El Cerrito, CA, sixth grade students are tasked to imagine, develop, produce, and market a product made with natural ingredients, including some grown in the school gardens. Additionally, the DIGS Greenhouse Program annually supplies over 5,000 plant starts to the school district gardens. We also supply garden mentors to several schools to help with garden plans and questions.

The DIGS vision is to mobilize educators and communites to help all schools build a garden, teach eco-responsibility, and sow seeds of stewardship at an early age. The greatest validation of our work comes from the students themselves. Here’s what Anna, a sixth grade student who went through our Growing Green program has to say: “I love this garden. It has been a safe haven for me. My school is very fortunate to have this place because many others only have a patch of grass, some weeds, and a concrete playground. We were led by our teachers, over the last few years, to make this garden what it is today. I will remember the chickens crowing, the smell of woodchips, the warm stump under me, and the soft, green plants touching my hands as I write this, and it will help me to appreciate nature forever.”

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