Sonya Harris was a special education teacher at the Bullock School in Glassboro, New Jersey, when she decided her students needed a garden. “I had no experience, I never even wanted to touch dirt, but I knew that connecting kids to the natural world was really important,” Sonya said, in a roundtable discussion on urban growing, part of the New Jersey winter conference.
“I didn’t ask anyone for permission,” she noted. “It was for the kids.”
Starting the garden was transformational for Sonya; working in the garden was transformational for her students. She has written, “It became embedded in my soul, in my core, when I learned about the benefits of a garden and how gardening can help children. And how gardening can help children through who live with trauma. And how gardening can help bring out the gifts in children of special needs.”
The garden functions not only as an outdoor classroom, but also as a source of nutritious food for many families who otherwise struggle to find it. “What I learned is not only how critical and important it could be for reconnecting kids with nature. It is also important nutritionally. Urban growing isn’t just about creating beautiful outdoor spaces—it’s about feeding people. I knew this had to be a spot that our kids and families can come to harvest.”
Against advice, she did not fence the garden. “We had only once incident—someone grabbed a couple tomatoes and threw them at a window,” she said. The kids who loved the garden found out who it was, and they intervened. “And it’s never been vandalized again.”
As the garden thrived over the past five years, Sonya realized she had found a new calling. She retired from teaching and founded the Bullock Garden Project, fostering and advising school gardens across the state and the country. Her passion shifted, she has written, “to make sure that children who lived in these situations had food. And had a food source. And knew that you could put a seed in the ground and not only feed you, and your family, but then you can let that grow and you can take those seeds and package them and sell them. And you can learn how to work the soil and turn that into an empire. Turn that into your way out. That is my passion. That is why we do this.”
Too many school gardens fall into disrepair when the parents who organize it move along as their children age out of the school. Not at Bullock, Sonya said. “The ownership is with the kids, not the PTA, not the parents. If the garden belongs to the children, they will pass it along,” from older kids to younger ones. And as those older kids have moved up, they have started new gardens at their new schools. “If you want something to be successful, get them when they are little. They will keep it going.”