January 30, 2017

The School Garden at Pantarijn: A Study in Collaboration

Laura Genello

Laura Genello

Guest Blogger

Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future

This post is the first in a series – Letters from the Low Country – that Laura Genello will be writing about inspiring projects in food and agriculture in the Netherlands, where she is studying organic agriculture at Wageningen University.

When I arrived in the Netherlands in August, I was immediately struck by the gardens: from community gardens wild with climbing beans and sunflowers to home gardens with tidy rows of miniature shrubs. Six months later I set out to learn about a type of garden that is less visible to the tourist—the school garden.

I’m a little nervous walking into the cafeteria of the Pantarijn secondary school in Wageningen, a small town located in the center of the Netherlands. I speak Dutch at the level of a toddler, and have no idea how to identify the two students I am about to meet. I’m here to speak with Lisa and Marijn, high school seniors who are working on a capstone project investigating the potential for establishing a garden at their school. Fortunately, these two young women speak fluent English, and greet me before I have a chance to look lost. Since September they’ve been immersed in school garden field research. They’ve visited other schools with gardens and conducted interviews with their own teachers. Lisa and Marijn hope to develop ideas for a gardening program that is just as relevant to students their age as it is to younger students. Their work is part of a much more comprehensive initiative at Pantarijn.

Blair van Pelt, a school gardening consultant, gives me an overview of the initiative. It began a few years ago, when Blair teamed up with Joanne Malotaux, a new biology teacher at Pantarijn. The two had a vision for a garden that went beyond a couple of classroom lessons for primary school students; they wanted a program fully integrated into the school curriculum and infrastructure across multiple disciplines and grade-levels. While school gardens exist in the Netherlands for primary education, they are rare in high schools. The two envisioned a space for project-based learning that would become a core part of the educational program at Pantarijn. Joanne says that after a year of research, momentum for the project really started picking up when the school management realized the idea complemented their strategic vision. Now, Joanne is part of a committee at the school dedicated to planning and implementing the project. She envisions a campus garden as a site for classroom lessons and small projects, coupled with an off-campus farm that could be used for larger projects. The larger farm, she hopes, could also help foster more interaction between students following the vocational and college-bound tracks at Pantarijn.

While the garden has yet to be built, I’m impressed by how much garden-based learning is already happening. In addition to supervising Lisa and Marijn’s capstone project, Joanne is also working with several other groups of students. She tells me about the six teams of students, ages 15 to 16, who assess various aspects of garden feasibility through surveys and literature research, the 80 students who participated in a composting and waste disposal design challenge this fall, and the 200 students who conducted simple science experiments sowing seeds under different conditions. With all this activity happening already, it’s not hard to imagine the opportunities for project-based learning that will exist once the new garden infrastructure is built.

Through their research, Marijn and Lisa quickly discovered that not all their teachers had the same vision for the garden. While the French teacher was committed to the idea of growing vegetables, the Biology department wanted animals, and the Latin and Greek teachers were excited about the idea of flower gardens as a place to sit while discussing philosophy. They quickly came to the conclusion that they could not satisfy everyone. What all teachers agreed on, though, was that they wanted an opportunity to move the classroom outdoors; they all wanted a seating area. Lisa and Marijn’s challenge was to distill all of the ideas they received into a coherent set of recommendations.

Marijn and Lisa are learning not just about the benefits of school gardens, but how to conduct interviews, collect data, manage their time, solve problems, and work on a team. The approach seems to reflect something that I’ve noticed in my masters degree program at nearby Wageningen University: education in the Netherlands is highly project-oriented and collaborative.

I asked Lisa and Marijn what their favorite part of their project has been, and they both stressed that working on a field-based practical project felt more real than sitting in a classroom. In a classroom, they said, you are told what to think, but when conducting a project like this, you determine not only the facts, but you start to understand why things are they way they are. While Lisa and Marijn will likely graduate before the garden is fully realized, they both stressed the increased motivation they feel working on a project that will influence the lives of other students. The skills they’ve gained through this experience will no doubt serve them well in their future college studies: Archeology for Marijn and Plant Science for Lisa.

Photos: Blair Van Pelt.

Creative Commons License
This work by Laura Genello and the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. Images in this post are not included in the Creative Commons license.


  1. Posted by Kenneth Robinson

    What a wonderful project, this should be encouraged in other countries, here in Australia I will be starting something similar, but based on our native food plants, that have been successfully used by our native Aboriginal people for sixty thousand years and are not yet researched properly although they grow naturally and suit the climate.

  2. Posted by Ron Goldberg

    I very much enjoyed reading this post as well as the other posts referenced at the end of the post. Interesting and balanced discussions at the cross roads of sustainable agriculture and education

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